Friday, October 18, 2013

two brushes with musical history

This summer, Graymatter was twice given the opportunity to share the stage with amazing southern blues musicians who are currently a part of the Music Maker Relief program. It was an honor and most definitely they were memorable evenings.

What is Music Maker Relief?  

The Music Maker Relief Foundation’s mission is to “preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.” 

In the late ‘80’s, Tim Duffy was an NC college student who set out on a discovery project to find and document elderly blues musicians. He found a hotbed in nearby Winston-Salem but realized quickly that these people were living in the throes of extreme poverty and that their music, along with the musical tradition, was on the verge of being lost. When asked how he could help them they did not ask for money. They asked instead, for a gig. Timothy and his wife gathered together some fellow music lovers and the MMRF was born, based in Hillsborough, NC. Through their efforts they’ve been able to arrange bookings, produce recordings and provide physical and financial support for these important, yet aging, national treasures. They provide help with monthly medical bills, food and emergency needs as well as assistance to develop their material and earn income from performances and royalties.

MMRF works to support the most vulnerable folks, elderly musicians with incomes under $18,000 a year, though the sad reality is that many of the folks they work to support had annual incomes of $7000 to $10,000 before MMRF took them on. The organization focuses on documenting and sustaining artists with traditions in blues, gospel, string band and Native American music.

The first MMRF musician that Graymatter spent an evening with was Ironing Board Sam. Sam was born in Rock Hill, SC in 1939 and began performing when he was 14 years old. He got his nickname while living in Miami in the 50’s because he lacked a stand for his keyboard so at gigs he mounted it on an old ironing board. In the 60’s he jammed and gigged with a very young Jimmy Hendrix in Nashville. Sam created his unique musical instrument by combining two keyboards, threading guitar strings through a wah-wah pedal then into an amp and connecting 60 upholstery tacks to the electronic sensors, all to create a range of sounds for which he was known. Sadly, he took his creation to an electronics technician for an upgrade, only to find that the man found his instrument to be so outrageous that he just threw it out. Sam moved to New Orleans but was chased out by Hurricane Katrina and ended up back in Rock Hill. This is where Music Maker Relief found him. He received help with medical care, car repairs, they provided him with a new keyboard, recorded an album for him and got him some gigs.

Then in August Graymatter shared the stage with Big Ron Hunter. Ron is one of the happiest people we’ve ever met. With an amazing voice and simple style, yet full of warmth and depth, you can’t help but be mesmerized by Ron when he performs. Born in Winston Salem, the son of a sharecropper who taught him how to sing and play guitar when he was quite small.  MMRF schedules gigs for Ron throughout North Carolina, all over the US and he’s even performed in Belgium. MMRF helped him get a passport, has donated guitars to him and recorded his CD.

A documentary was made of Tim Duffy’s amazing project, funded by a grant from Martin Scorsese, Paul Allen and The Blues Music Foundation. It’s an hour-long film but in it you’ll be introduced to characters he met on his journey, including “Guitar Gabriel, a 'homeless magic potion selling' blues genius; Willa Mae Buckner, a snake charming elderly woman taunting delightfully raunchy blues; Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins, a grandmother who continues to tear up the stage and play a killer electric guitar behind her head; Bishop Dready Manning and family churning out homebrewed rockabilly-gospel; Boo Hanks, an 80 year-old bluesman recording an album for the very first time; and blind guitarist, Cootie Stark, mesmerizing crowds world-wide while never failing to find his way home by himself.” It was because of his interactions and partnership with these musicians that Duffy was inspired to create the Music Maker Relief Foundation, so that their stories and their music would not be lost.

You can watch the entire film here.