Music Maker Celebrates 25 Years Of Preserving Musical Traditions Of The South
“We Are The Music Makers” is the current exhibit at the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center featuring portrait photography of Southern roots musicians by Tim Duffy. After studying folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duffy co-founded Music Maker Relief Foundation to assist aging artists in need — providing money for food and medicine. He’s also brought them to new audiences, releasing nearly 2,500 songs, and arranging over 7,000 concerts. Since 1994, Duffy’s non-profit has supported hundreds of extraordinary performers, ensuring that their unique voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.
Duffy will speak Thursday evening about the musicians he’s befriended, and the music they’ve left behind. On Friday, the new Music Maker CD “Blue Muse” will be released in celebration of the organization's 25th anniversary.
"Every artist is their own thing, and there's an old saying: 'When one of these artists passes, it's like a great university library has burned down.' They have so much cultural knowledge and so many songs," says Duffy. "So, they're like a lot of American geniuses you know that are walking right amongst you and your community...these people are in my opinion some of our greatest, holding onto some of our greatest cultural resources in the history and knowledge, and they just make you feel great when you hear them play."
WFDD’s David Ford caught up with Duffy near his home in Hillsborough.
On Mt. Airy old-time fiddler Benton Flippen:
I lived in Pinnacle, North Carolina and he lived in Mount Airy. He was one of my neighbors, and he was a great old-time fiddler that played square dances every weekend in his community.
But his fiddle style was truly inventive and amazing. He improvised with a lot of bluesy licks played very fast and it was like a combination of bluegrass and old time music mixed together. He was just a fabulous man that spent his life working in a sock factory, working hard to support his family and playing the music on his weekends. And he loved being part of the Music Makers. We'd have big picnics with all the blues players and Benton, and we'd all sit there and play together and have a good time. He represented what we do: a working class fella that retired and all he wanted was to play music. And he had medical bills, prescription medicine that he could not afford – and we were able to help him for many years afford his needed prescription drugs, and we were very proud to do that.
On Mississippi blues guitarist Dr. G.B. Burt:
He's from Birmingham, Alabama, and he was a very special man. His mother was very active in the civil rights movement. He was a Freedom Rider. He organized marches in Detroit. He was actually almost assassinated. Someone tried to shoot him, but they missed his head and hit his thumb, which affected his hands. He spent his life playing little house parties in Birmingham. And when we met him, we took him to Lincoln Center and went to Australia and throughout Europe, and people were just blown away by his performances. He was a very tall fellow. And when he walked on stage he had such a Buddha-like peaceful aura. People would give him a standing ovation before he started playing.
Then he became quite popular in southern France and played there quite often. He actually had murals on the walls and streets of Paris and it was just amazing. He walked into a museum and a curator said, "Look up," and Dr. Burt looked up onto the ceiling and there was a picture of Dr. Burt that I had taken – the one that's in [at the exhibition], and the curator said, "When people come here they'll always have to look up to you, Dr. Burt." And Dr. Burt was so proud of that. And when he told me that, it gave me the idea to start doing exhibitions and getting these people's faces that I had grown to love onto museum and cultural institution's walls so other people could see who they were. I was so busy making records I hadn't thought about the visual aspect, but just to see these faces is sometimes just as important as hearing their music.
On North Carolina singer Willa Mae Buckner:
I spent a lot of time in Winston-Salem, up and down Cleveland Avenue, and I was at a drink house. A drink house is like what in Mississippi you'd call a juke joint where you're selling dollar shots of liquor and dollar beers. They're pretty much community centers and people gather. And in walked Willa Mae Buckner when Guitar Gabriel and I were playing. And she did this bawdy song, and then did a string of them, and cursed like a sailor and we had so much fun. And I had heard about her. But she was known as the snake lady, and no one would take me to her house because she lived with two gigantic pythons that roamed freely in her house. And I went to visit her and, in fact, that was true.
I think in that picture in the exhibit, if you look closely, it looks like a headband, but it's a white albino python wrapped around her head. Music Maker used to buy her frozen rats when she was too poor to feed them. And I actually watched her feed frozen rats by hand to these pythons. And she had wonderful stories. She used to travel around in a panel truck with a chimpanzee in the passenger seat and 27 snakes in cages in the back. And she'd get to a country road and she would let all the snakes out for a walk, and she'd hide behind a bush and they looked for momma and they couldn't see her, and they'd whoosh back into the truck. Just an amazing lady! And she was a city bus driver for Winston. And the greatest accomplishment I think we did [was] when we got her a show at Carnegie Hall with Guitar Gabriel called Circus Blues. The promoter got all these old acts that used to play in the sideshows of circuses. So I just love Willa Mae Buckner. She was one of my best friends.
Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.