Cootie's Recording Session - Mark Austin
"If someone calls in and wants some help, it's immediate," says Timothy Duffy about the Music Maker Relief Foundation's unique approach to meeting the needs of traditional blues artists. "If we have it, it's a phone call, bang, the check's out." Music Maker has bought new instruments for musicians, helped secure performance opportunities, provided legal advocacy, and printed t-shirts for artists to sell at shows. Above all, the foundation has put a priority on helping its indigent and elderly beneficiaries with more basic needs: food, heat, health care, and transportation. "We realized it takes more than a guitar to create art," Duffy says. "If you're just worried about surviving, you're not worried about playing music."
Since the end of the '60s folk/blues revival, the sorts of artists that Music Maker deals with-older Southern bluesmen and women who play their music in traditional styles-have received attention mainly from a small number of folklorists and blues aficionados (often Europeans) interested in documenting their lives and recording their music for small labels or grant-funded anthologies. Duffy himself is a trained folklorist, but he has a different attitude about recordings than many of his predecessors. "I'm a manic compulsive field recorder," he says. "[But] everybody I've met feels bad about these small record deals. They feel initially good that they're going to have a record out. Then very bad because as soon as it comes out they become cognizant of the fact that they're not getting any money... They get 30 free copies, and after those are gone they can't get any more. And the folklorist has gone on to another gig. And if you're not so sophisticated about the record business, it's easy to deceive yourself about how much money is being made on those things, and you get a bad feeling because there's no communication. People get paranoid and feel bad. Or maybe they don't feel bad, but they still can't get a record from the label to sell at their concert. So they give up."
Music Maker has released three CDs-the samplers A Living Past and Came So Far and a full album by the late North Carolina bluesman Guitar Gabriel, but Duffy's overall philosophy has been to hold out for a recording deal that will bring real money to the foundation's artists. "Getting a good record deal in this kind of music has never been done before," he points out. "And so it's been taking a while. When I was with Guitar Gabriel or other [artists], people offer you $1,000 for a record, and I'm glad I never took it 'cause it's really not that much money. You're better off not having a record than feeling bad about a record that's out. So I tell a lot of people not to do records... And there's never going to be enough money from record sales to cover everyone's needs. For Music Maker, the need is unending and it's huge. I've turned over in cash and kind close to $300,000 over four years. When you're dealing with 40 people, that's just chump change. But it's hope... if you're just pulling down a few hundred a month and someone can throw you $100 steadily every month, that means a lot. It means someone cares. And that's the whole thing. It's the spirit behind the gift."
The path that led Duffy, a 34-year-old Connecticut native, to co-founding Music Maker began in 1988 when he was documenting the life of bluesman James "Guitar Slim" Stephens while in graduate school in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Through advice from Stephens, who had introduced Duffy into the drink-house blues culture of inner-city ghettos in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, he was able to locate Guitar Gabriel [Robert "Nyles" Jones], who in turn helped lead him to a cadre of local performers, including Captain Luke [Luther Mayer], Mr. Q, Macavine Hayes, Willa Mae Buckner, and Preston Fulp. A talented guitarist himself, Duffy soon developed a traveling show with the Winston-Salem artists, but it was with Guitar Gabriel that he forged an especially close relationship and musical bond. As Nyles Jones, Gabriel had recorded an acclaimed LP, My South, My Blues, for Gemini in 1970, but had grown disillusioned with the blues scene. Duffy brought him back before the public in 1991 at prestigious gigs including Carnegie Hall and Blues Estafette in Holland and recorded him, first for his Karibu label and then for Music Maker. "He told me if I ripped him off, he'd shoot me," says Duffy. "It was a clear agreement. We understood each other. And I never ripped him off. I stayed with him until the day he died. He didn't get what he deserved. But he got something. That's why we started Music Maker."
The foundation was launched in 1994 through Duffy's and Gabriel's association with audio pioneer Mark Levinson of the New York-based Cello Music & Film Systems. "He met Guitar Gabriel and was so impressed by Gabe's genius as a musician," says Duffy of Levinson. "And he's a musician himself who has played with John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus... When I told him the stories about how these people lived he was truly shaken and aghast. He deals with Sony, the great mastering labs, he's been a part of the music industry and seen that they have made billions and billions of dollars off the people's and the culture's music. And these people don't have jack. He thought it was a crime... Mark will go anywhere and give that message to anyone he meets in the music industry. To the top-shelf, big executives, he'll lay it on 'em. And that's where we get our big hits from. He's our platform to high society. If it wasn't for him [Music Maker] wouldn't have happened."
In addition to the foundation's entrée into New York's social elite and the audiophile community, Duffy's relationship with Levinson has helped him to establish links with blues-loving rock 'n' roll stars: Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Ron Wood, and Bonnie Raitt have all expressed their support for Music Maker, as have B.B. King and Taj Mahal. Producer John Porter invited Duffy along for the recording of B.B. King's recent duet album, Deuces Wild, an excursion that helped Duffy secure the record deal he was waiting for-a new label, Jericho Records, run by Porter and British record executive Andrew Lauder, is scheduled to release as many as ten CDs by Music Maker artists in 1998. The first of those will likely be the soundtrack to Blues Stories, the working title of a film currently in production that will feature many of the active performers with whom the foundation works. Directed by Larry Banks, produced by Elliott Kastner, and narrated by Taj Mahal, the film is being geared towards a May debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
Music Maker's appeals to big-money donors and big-budget projects are part of a conscious retreat from the established American blues festival and club scene. "We've traveled around the blues world, there's no money in the blues world," Duffy contends. "I've played the festivals and there's nothing there... you have to go outside. We withdrew and went around the fort... You're playing Carnegie Hall, you're playing Europe, you're playing jewelry stores on Long Island, and then they call you up and they want a guy for $200 or $300, and we say no. And they might feel bad 'cause they can't get us cheap anymore. But if you don't say no to small-time gigs you don't get the big gigs. We're trying to elevate the thing in every way, living standards, pay standards... We find out what [the artists] want to do with their lives and then we try to enable them to do it. So if someone wants a lot of money per show, well, [maybe] we've only gotten that person two shows in three years-but we got 'em two shows for the price they wanted."
Music Maker is about more than just money, however. "What we're trying to do is form a community," Duffy says. "The blues is from a community but it's disenfranchised. The local stages are gone, and you have all these great blues artists and they don't know each other. And so we take great pains and money to introduce everybody, and now Cootie Stark and Neal Pattman have become great friends. They're touring Europe together. They met through Music Maker. They met Cora Mae Bryant and they all talk on the phone. Even if they don't talk to each other, they're aware of each other, and they're aware of a sense of a group of elderly blues musicians. They're part of something that's a bigger whole. There's a sense of community. We're all helping each other through the foundation."
Music Maker fosters its community spirit at biannual get-togethers at Duffy's home in Pinnacle, North Carolina, from which he and his wife Denise administer the foundation's grants, subject to approval by a small board of directors-and coordinate performance schedules (neither of them takes a salary from the foundation). They're helped out by Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck, an Atlanta-based guitarist who is a sympathetic accompanist and road manager, and who was instrumental in bringing Music Maker to the attention of Atlanta-area artists Frank Edwards, Cora Mae Bryant, and Beverly Watkins. Duffy became aware of many of the other deep South artists Music Maker has helped through the work of previous field recorders in the region, including George Mitchell, Fred Fussell, and, especially, Axel Kčstner.
The seven musicians profiled as part of this story are representative of the types of individuals with whom Music Maker is currently involved. Among the other recipients of Music Maker grants are Alabama bluesmen J.W. Warren, David Johnson, Jerry McCain, and Jolly Wells and Bo McGhee [Little Whitt and Big Bo]; Georgians Rufus McKenzie, Neal "Big Daddy" Pattman, and Jimmie Lee Williams; Mississippians Cora Fluker, Eugene Powell, Othar Turner, and Jessie Mae Hemphill; South Carolina "Blues Doctor" Drink Small; and North Carolinians Etta Baker, John Dee Holeman, Mr. Q, Macavine Hayes, Big Boy Henry, Algia Mae Hinton, Captain Luke, Willa Mae Buckner, Thomas "Guitar" Gable and Bishop Dready and Marie Manning. Two of the most recent beneficiaries are Albert Smith, an 86-year-old boogie woogie pianist from South Carolina, and George Herbert Moore, a guitarist from Burgaw, North Carolina. The foundation has also helped Alvin Anderson, the son of South Carolina blues great Pink Anderson, who is profiled in this issue.
"The blues is a spirit," Timothy Duffy sums up. "It's always a spiritual thing. Guitar Gabriel talked about it. It's a big force. And blues will never die. The form of the blues was probably invented from Emancipation to the turn of the century. Probably the feeling was already there, but the form was put together. That's over 100 years ago. And it's still going on. There's still guys like Cootie Stark playing songs that he learned from uncles who were born in that time. And so maybe Cootie is not Son House, but it's the only damn thing we got right now. If you want to hear a direct link to the early blues, Cootie's your chance. Neal Pattman's your chance. Everyone idolizes Mississippi John Hurt. What about the guy down the street who wasn't recorded? These are the guys who weren't recorded. And so we should treasure them as part of the whole scene... But hopefully in a way that everyone gets some cash. You know, the guys get some money. That's the big nut."
The following excerpts are taken from interviews conducted by Timothy Duffy (John Lee Zeigler,
James Davis, Carl Hodges), Timothy Duffy and Fred Fussell (Precious Bryant), David Nelson and
Lauri Lawson (Frank Edwards, Cora Mae Bryant, Beverly Watkins), and Timothy Duffy and David
Nelson (Cootie Stark). Interviews with many of the North Carolina-based musicians with whom Music
Maker has worked appeared in a two-part special on North Carolina blues in LB 107 and 108. Guitar
Gabriel [who died in 1996] was featured in LB 103. The Music Maker Relief Foundation can be
contacted at Rt. 1, Box 567, , Hillsborough, NC 27278.