Music Maker Relief Foundation lends support to America’s traditional artists

guitar gabriel

Sometimes one man with the right idea can make all the difference.

In 1989 UNC Chapel Hill graduate student and full-time music obsessive Timothy Duffy made a series of field recordings of James “Guitar Slim” Stephens for the university’s Southern Folklife Collection. On his deathbed, Slim urged Duffy to seek out his friend,Winston-Salem musician Guitar Gabriel. That journey would open Duffy’s eyes to the sheer number of traditional musicians living in subsistence level poverty across the region.

Working out of a shed in his backyard, Duffy began booking gigs and seeking record deals for the struggling musicians he had met, such as Willa Mae Buckner, Preston Fulp, and Macavine Hayes. In 1994, with the help audio engineer Mark Levinson, Duffy founded the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation.

“In the early 1990’s, we were amazed to meet elderly artists still performing the musical traditions of the nineteenth and early 20th century America. They lived in abject poverty but when we asked how we could help, they didn’t ask for money, they wanted a gig,” Duffy has commented about those early days.

Since that time, the Music Maker Relief Foundation has assisted and partnered with over 300 artists, issued over 150 CDs and reached over a million people with live performance in over 40 states and 17 countries around the globe.

Music Maker artists must be at least 55 years old, rooted in a Southern musical tradition, and have an income of less than $18,000 a year. According to Duffy, many are surviving on less than $10,000 annually.

The music produced by the artists assisted by the Music Maker Relief Foundation ranges far and wide across the field of traditional American music: the raucous big city blues of Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and Eddie Tigner; the finger-picked acoustic folk of Morganton native Etta Baker; Lakota John and Kin’s mix of blues and traditional Native American harmonies; and the indefinable stylings of Cootie Stark, a blind Piedmont musician who traveled the country for 50 years with a tin cup at the end of his guitar.

I first became aware of the foundation in 2004, when I happened upon the book “Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America” which includes photos and information about each Music Maker artist. But what really caught my attention was the CD included with the book, a compilation of Music Maker artists that, far from being a stale museum archive of a vanished culture, contained some of the freshest, most life affirming sounds I’d heard in years. This music was made by men and women who had long since given up hope of becoming music stars and instead had carried on out of pure stubbornness and for the unquenchable joy they still found in their craft.

While many of the Music Maker artists are well into their Medicare  years, I would still jump at the chance to see any one of them perform live. In 2006 I was lucky enough to have a front row seat to watch one of the artists supported by the foundation, Bishop Dready Manning, raise the roof of St. Mark Holiness Church in Roanoke Rapids with  a blistering set of gospel blues featuring his unapologetically electric, soul and body shaking guitar work. I’ve gone to church a time or two in my day, but I’ve never “been to church” quite so thoroughly before or since.

Manning is just one of the all-but-forgotten musicians still plying their trade in the nooks and crannies of America’s rural communities and urban backwaters. Their music has thoroughly enriched my life and I have no doubt that, given the chance, it can do the same for others.

The British guitarist John Mayall once described the blues as “the most human music” and that’s about as good an argument as I could hope to make for lending support to those who still carry on its legacy, for preserving its uniquely southern voice, and uniquely American spirit.

But blues is only one one of the traditions the Music Maker Relief Foundation is helping to bring into the 21st century. Or as Guitar Gabriel once put it : “In the Good Book it says to make a joyful noise. It doesn’t say what kind of noise, just as long as you make one. So that is just about the size of it. That is what we are trying to do.”

For more information on the Music Maker Relief Foundation visit


2 Responses to “Music Maker Relief Foundation lends support to America’s traditional artists”

  1. Fascinating post – some really good artists and good work being done by Music Maker!

  2. Your stule iss really unique compared to other folks I have ead
    stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this web site.

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