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Music Maker eases the blues for down-and-out artists

October 27, 2014 at 6:05 PM EDT
For every American musician who makes it big, there are many, many more who eke out a living to be able to afford new guitar strings. The Music Maker Foundation, based in North Carolina, helps struggling blues artists meet their basic needs, record their music and book tours. Jeffrey Brown reports on their efforts to preserve American culture and keep the music coming.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight:  Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

Jeffrey Brown is back with a report on an effort to help musicians who are literally living the blues.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 75, Ironing Board Sam has certainly had his share of ups and even more downs. He was born Sammie Moore. The stage name came early in his career when he built his own makeshift music stand.

In the 60s, he was a regular on “Night Train,” a Nashville TV show featuring up-and-coming rhythm and blues acts. He played with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and even opened for Aretha Franklin. But Ironing Board Sam never made it big and for several decades he eked out a living washing dishes while playing at dance parties and small clubs around the South.

For a time, he was a fixture on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, literally playing on the street, known for his flashy style. And then, in 2005, he disappeared.

TIM DUFFY, Music Maker Relief Foundation: For four years, I was looking for him, and we found him in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and living in just a squalid little trailer, playing at a little sports bar. And we met him, and he said he was just giving up and was ready to go into the next world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim Duffy is founder of the North Carolina-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, which for 20 years has helped struggling blues musicians.

TIM DUFFY: We literally said, get in the car. We took him up here to Hillsborough, got him an apartment, got him teeth, got him glasses, got him to the doctor’s, got him performing attire, clothes, shoes, everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since 1994, Duffy’s been traveling through the South and beyond, working with artists like Boo Hanks, a farmer in Buffalo Junction, Virginia, and Captain Luke, an 86-year-old whose baritone has filled church halls and bars, musicians, there are hundreds and even thousands of them, who found a small following, but never rose to stardom.

Music Maker helps them meet basic needs and also regain their musical lives and, for some, their dignity by recording their music and booking tours.

TIM DUFFY: If an artist doesn’t have money for a new set of guitar strings, like, simple, six bucks, their neighbor doesn’t have six bucks, their preacher doesn’t have six bucks, no one in the community has an extra six bucks for those guitar strings, a simple thing like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: To date, Music Maker has put out 168 albums, including this year’s anniversary collection of its artists and a new book of portraits, taken by Duffy, now on exhibit in Carrboro, North Carolina, before heading to the B.B. King Museum in Mississippi.

Over two days earlier this month, 50 of Music Maker’s 300 musicians gathered near Durham to celebrate the organization. There were group photos, and of course a lot of music, from artists like Lakota John, Little Freddie King, and Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen.

Cohen, like Ironing Board Sam, was once a regular in the New Orleans scene. She was washed out by Hurricane Katrina, losing everything that matters to a musician.

PAT “MOTHER BLUES” COHEN, Musician: I lost every connection that I had, no musicians, no clubs, no friends. People overlook how important friendship is, and they overlook how important connections are, especially if you’re in this business, unless you’re planning on not doing anything, and so I didn’t for a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: Music Maker helped her establish a new network of regular paying gigs, including several in Europe.

WILLIAM FERRIS, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Without Music Maker, these musicians would be invisible, to borrow Ralph Ellison’s phrase.

JEFFREY BROWN: William Ferris, a scholar of southern culture at the University of North Carolina who once headed the National Endowment for the Humanities, led a discussion with several artists and talked to us about the important role of Music Maker.

WILLIAM FERRIS: They provide a model for what our nation should be doing. The New Deal under FDR did this for the entire nation, and Tim Duffy thankfully is doing it for the community of blues artists.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see why it’s good for them. Why is good — why is it important for the rest of us?

WILLIAM FERRIS: It’s important for the rest of us because it enlarges our understanding of who we are as Americans. It gives us a whole new sense of the roots of our American music, and in the South, that is even more important.

JEFFREY BROWN: That fraught racial history isn’t lost on Duffy. A white man from the North — he was raised in New Haven, Connecticut — he says he faced much skepticism from artists at the outset, many of whom had been ripped off and forgotten by outsiders. He says he worked hard to overcome that.

TIM DUFFY: Music Maker works one on one with artists to make a partnership, where it’s an equal exchange. Like, I really feel when I take pictures, someone’s photo, or record their music, and I just don’t leave. You know, I’m against that. And it’s a longtime commitment. That’s why I have artists working with me for 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ironing Board Sam, a member of Music Maker since 2010, recently returned from two shows in France.

SAMMIE “IRONING BOARD SAM” MOORE, Musician: If you be a musician a long time, life is like a seesaw. It’s going to go up and down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SAMMIE “IRONING BOARD SAM” MOORE: In the down part, the relief foundation picks you back up, puts you on a level. You just started making money and feeling good about yourself.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s amazing, after all your years of playing and all your experience, and now you’re getting to go to France.

SAMMIE “IRONING BOARD SAM” MOORE: Yes, now — I’m just now getting to the place I wanted to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with 34 shows so far this year, Ironing Board Sam seems in no mood to slow down.

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