Relying on the local pawn shop seems to be a running theme in the blues. A double edged sword though, you have to drop off your instrument, your main squeeze, with the hopes that she’ll be waiting there for you when you can afford to come back and pick her up again. It doesn’t always work out that way though, coming back home to a love lost can be a dicey back back-and-forth that the traveling bluesmen knows all too well. Adolphus Bell was a musician that used this exchange as a source of inspiration and identity for his favorite guitar, affectionately named “Pawn Shop.” In this song, he talks about the ups and downs of his visits to the Pawn Shop and how Music Maker stepped in to help him make sure he’d never have to worry about his baby waiting on him in that shop ever again. A beautiful story told straight to the point, feel the original One Man Band tell it like it really is!
— Berk Ozturk
Albert White started the Rockers with a group of his high school buddies. At the time, they all played guitar, so they began with the division of labor. Albert got to stick with the guitar and his buddies put their’s down to pick up bass and drums. From the time they were 15, they were taking cues from Albert’s uncle, the R&B legend Piano Red. Albert would play in his uncle’s band and carry back everything he learned to his ragtag group of friends. That was the beginning of something beautiful. That group of friends played together for the next 50 years. House parties, lounges, nightclubs, weddings, corporate functions, etcetera. They made it a point to learn every song that was in the top 40. Whatever was on the radio, they’d play. On Albert’s recent record “Albert White and the Rockers” you can hear the soulful stamp they put on every song they played.
For this year’s Black History Month I have decided to write about what I feel is one of the boldest institutions celebrating Black History in America at this time: The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Sentimentalism isn’t all bad, especially when it comes wrapped in a breeze from Oahu. Grasshopper Pie is the track to Slewfoot and the Angels, and yet a complete departure from the New Orleans grit that imbues most of its tracks. I don’t speak Hawaiian, but this chorus sticks in my head. I was once privileged to a command performance of this tune by Slew and Cary next to my desk, still brings a tear to the eye…
— Denise Duffy
I often find myself catching a case of winter ambivalence brought on by the numbing cold of the frosty season. If you’re like me, Clyde Langford’s mournful wails might be the remedy you need to melt your cold soul. The East Texas bluesman’s guitar hums and buzzes along with his tender, folky crooning, reminding me of the birds, bees, and the cool breeze that’ll soon return with spring. So if you’re feeling numb, you ought to let Clyde sing for you. And you ought to let it move you. Because feeling blue is better than feeling nothing at all.
The Blues Doctor knows what ails you. He’s an expert diagnostician of the many maladies of the heart and soul. He got his education early, being born in the depths of the Depression to the cotton fields of Bishopville, South Carolina in 1933. As a member of a share cropping family, he started working in the fields young. One day, when he was just 8 years old, the mule-drawn wagon he was riding in lurched and both Drink and the cotton bales were thrown off the side. When his uncle started the mule to go again, the cart rolled over young Drink and severely injured his back. With no money for doctors or the hospital, a local midwife nursed Drink as best she could. But weeks later, when they removed the makeshift cast she put on him, it was clear to all that Drink would not be making a living as a farmer.
So at age of 11, Drink started work as an explorer of the human condition in song. He played the piano and guitar through high school and performed in homes and at churches. While he was sent to barber school, he discovered very quickly that he didn’t want to cut hair, he wanted to “cut up”. He turned his full attention to the music and has spent the eight decades since “boogalooin’ on Saturday and hallalejehin’ in church on Sundays”. Drink has travelled the world, playing the big festival stages and the dives, the country clubs and the juke joints, the chapels and the tent revivals. The study he has made of our plight is poignant and sometimes a little sad, but never lacks for humor:
“Rich people got the blues because they are trying to keep the money, the poor people got the blues because they are trying to get the money and I got the blues because I ain’t got no money.
Jesus had the blues. He had them because he didn’t want the devil to get all of the souls. He turned the rocks to souls, so the devil wouldn’t get them all. You know he turned the water into wine, I guess he did get drunk. Three quarters of the world is water. I’m glad he didn’t turn all of the water into wine or we would be in trouble.”
We met Drink Small way back in 1991, when he was still touring and recognized as one of the most renowned gospel guitarists and South Carolina’s finest bluesman. His music never brought him riches, but he made a living and has received some of the greatest honors a musician can earn, being the recipient of a South Carolina Folk Heritage award and being named a Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts heritage Fellow.
While we often hired Drink to play at the many music series and festivals we supplied talent to in North Carolina and around the country, for many years Drink never needed the assistance of our Musician Sustenance program. But, time has a way of wearing down the most fiercely independent of us. As Drink neared his 80s, his sight slowly began to slip away from him. Now completely blind, Drink can no longer travel or perform. The monthly stipend Music Maker sends him has become crucial to maintaining his extremely humble lifestyle. While Drink appreciates the financial aid, he believes that being part of the Music Maker family provides artists an essential sustenance for the spirit:
“Now the guy that had never been discovered, he will have a second chance. And some of them that have been discovered and are kind of confused or about to give up, Music Maker spices them up, gives something to live for and a reason to continue on. And the ones that have done it and have given up, you give them something to come back to.”
— Denise Duffy
Pat Sky’s biography reads like fiction. He’s a man of extraordinary gifts. A Southerner of Creek Indian heritage, he helped establish the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s—observers and critics often mentioned him in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk. Around that time, he produced Mississippi John Hurt’s Vanguard recordings which are revered to this day by blues fan. He showed himself to be way ahead of his time as a politically-charged comedic songwriter with his scathing Songs that Made America Famous. He founded the renowned Irish Music label Green Linnet Records, opened a penny whistle factory, and literally wrote the book on Uilleann pipes, sparking an Irish piping renaissance.
Sky also earned an MA in folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill, which is where he met Tim Duffy. When Duffy was getting Music Maker off the ground, he turned to Sky for guidance. Being a music business veteran, he introduced Duffy to a renowned lawyer who helped Music Maker navigate the thorny legal terrain of the music world. Sky also mentored Duffy, offering general advice and warnings about common pitfalls. The older musician knew all too well that many artists, even those at the top of their game, struggle to get by. So he was enthusiastic about an organization that could work to alleviate some of that struggle, and he was eager to offer whatever expertise he could.
As uniquely and diversely talented as Sky is, he’s seen his share of struggle as well. He’s no stranger to the charlatans, bloodsuckers, and swindlers that populate the many shadowy places of the music industry. These days, Sky’s health does not allow him to tour or stand for long periods of time in his workshop, so it has become even harder for him to make a living. Music Maker has stepped in to offer him some assistance. His story sets into relief how important Music Maker’s Musician Sustenance Program is. Pat Sky has given the world so much: songs, recordings, instruments, a rekindled passion for past musical traditions—not to mention the mentorship that he offered Tim Duffy. It’s great to know that he can receive a little help with basic living expenses when he needs it.
One of the songs that Pat Sky recorded on his first album was the Peter La Farge-penned “Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Although Johnny Cash had a top ten hit with the song, his version is marred by kitschy production and an overabundance of pathos. Sky’s version is better. He sang the song straight, calmly relating the story of the Pima Indian who raised the flag in glory at Iwo Jima only to return home to a life of poverty and alcoholism, where he “died drunk one morning / alone in the land he fought to save.” Because he doesn’t force any bitterness or anger, Sky’s version rings truer. The world where people can accomplish great things and get nothing in return is not a fictional place in some imaginary song-land. It is the real world; the place where we all live together.
The Music Maker Musician Sustenance Program works to counteract that harsh reality. And every contribution to Music Maker helps make it possible for great artists who have given us so much to receive a little bit in return.
— Will Boone
Get your holiday swinging with Cootie & the gang on this version of Jingle Bells. Done in the Blues fashion this number is loose as it gets. I wonder if the some minor indulgent in some holiday spirits had anything to do with that! The looseness of this song is what makes it so emblematic of the holidays. Having some drinks with friends singing songs and feeling like a family. That is what the blues, the holidays and Music Maker is all about!
When I was studying ethnomusicology in graduate school, we sat around a classroom one day debating the question, “What is the most fundamental element of music?” Some argued for pitch. Some argued for rhythm. Although it didn’t occur to me at that time, the answer seems obvious to me now—sound. Sound itself—vibration, sonic energy—is the essence of music. You can hear whole stories told through sound without your conscious brain ever registering anything like “pitch” or “rhythm.” When you think about sound in this way, you realize how powerful an instrument can be. A good instrument is much more than a tool for actualizing music. It is a vibrational organism, a sonic storyteller.
Freeman Vines’ guitars bring this idea to life for me. When I plugged in one he crafted from an African ceremonial mask, I let my fingers fall into a familiar scale. It was something that would sound good—fancy even—on my own assembly line Fender. But on Vines’ guitar it fell flat, nothing to it. I looked at the guitar. Its wide white eyes looked back at me. The instrument had its own ideas about how it should be played. I adjusted the tuning a little and went for something in the low register. The guitar began to speak. As I tried different voicings and different attacks the instrument gradually started to reveal itself to me.
Like the man himself, Freeman Vines’ guitars have little patience for bullshit. They say just what they mean and just what they feel like saying, and not a whole lot else. And even though they all bear the mark of Vines’ irrepressible individuality, every one of them is different. Each has its own sweet spot—a tonal range where its vibrations are the most captivating—and each has its own personality. Like people, they’re not always warm and inviting. A couple of them get a little ornery, a little mean.
Vines started building his own guitars because assembly line models weren’t giving him the sound he was looking for. “All the sounds to me were commercial,” he says, “plain, dang, ding, dong.” He wanted his own sound. Whether or not he’s found it he claims not to know, but his search has birthed some truly singular specimens. He used fire to shape the body of one guitar, burning the parts he wanted to remove and scraping away the ashes. “I saw the Indians doing it on TV with a canoe,” Vines allows with a touch of playfulness in his voice. The finished body looks inspired by naturally-occurring shapes, maybe a cross between a fish and a leaf. The grain of the charred wood is rich and splotchy like a centuries-old treasure map. It is a gorgeous instrument.
One of Vines’ guitars was fashioned from the soundboard of a piano he claims was over 100 years old. Another was made from cheap plywood. He uses materials that come to him. The shape of the instrument might originate in his imagination, or he might just follow the curves suggested by the wood. In some of his guitars you see echoes of classic Gibsons and Fenders. Others are simply idiosyncratic—one looks like a small boat, another like an ancient Greek lyre. Vines uses hardware and pickups from old unplayable guitars, and draws his own schematics for the wiring. On the headstock of several of his guitars, he’s handwritten in black, “Vine’s Ultrasound.”
Vines has been around. He’s 75 and is often alone these days, trying not to cross paths with people who may not share his ideas about how his time should be spent. Back in the 1960s, he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging with some guys who had just robbed their white boss. The boss came and bailed his workers out, leaving Vines to take the rap. He did 7 years in a Federal penitentiary. Out of prison, he traveled some with the Vines Sisters—a family gospel group. Recordings they made in the 1970s testify to the depth and quality of their music. But the gospel circuit has always been tough. The money, food, accommodations, and travel arrangements were never good, and the long dark shadows of racism that blot the Southern landscape were inescapable. Vines kept on going. He got married a few times. He did odd jobs. He worked on hot rods. He’s been well-acquainted with the spiritual things in life—with church folks and workers of witchcraft. He’s seen a lot of people come and go.
His mother recently passed away at age 95. She kept a diary for years and Freeman’s sister has adapted it and had it published as a book. There are a lot of stories in their family. Certainly, Freeman has plenty of his own. But memoirs and biographies are not his thing. He’s carving his story out of wood, fashioning instruments that can tell it for him. When I plug up his guitars and start to dig in, I hear tales about a renegade, an iconoclast, a stranger to this world. But there’s warmth in there, too, and some laughter. There’s even some sweetness if you look for it. The story gets devilish, but it never loses its way.
Age and diabetes don’t allow Vines to play like he used to. And some of his guitars are just bodies, not even set up with electronics and strings. But it’s not melody and harmony that tell Vines’ story. It’s something more elemental. It’s the idea of sound; the promise of vibration to shake our mortal shells into a place beyond ourselves. That’s where the real Vines story unfolds. It’s the kind of story that’s not for everyone. But even when his instruments appear silent, those with ears to hear will hear.
— Will Boone
For over 20 years Music Maker has been releasing albums, showcasing the amazing work of the artists we feel are so important to the fabric of our culture. During the CD boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, Music Maker was able to sell CDs, putting money in the pockets of these important musicians. The dawn of Napster and other peer-to-peer file sharing applications, widespread accessibility to the Internet and the subsequent shift in how we value music began to diminish sales, even for the largest record labels. In a relatively short period of time the entire music industry changed.
Larger companies were only concerned with their bottom line so they began to change the way they worked with artists, giving them an even smaller piece of the revenue pie. But Music Maker’s function as a record label is different than the Sonys and Warner Brothers of the world. The albums we put out aren’t going quadruple platinum, there is something much more important at stake. Anyone who has ever toured or played music professionally knows the importance of CDs as a source of income and as a way to connect with fans, not to mention the fact that many Music Maker artists had never been given an opportunity to record an album at all. Music Maker is able to grant these CDs to the musicians for free because of supporters like you.
Albert White has been around the musical block. He started playing in High School, rehearsing with his uncle, the R&B legend Dr. Feelgood. When he and his buddies got together their own band, they all started out with guitars. Eventually one guy had to put it down for a keyboard, the other for a bass, the other for drums and so on. As a mentor, this band, The Rockers, had Atlanta’s music scene including Dr. Feelgood, Lou Rawls arranger Thomas Stewart, Grady Fats Jackson, the guy who blew two saxes at the same time and others. On top of that, Atlanta was and is a regular stopover for acts touring the East Coast. Albert opened for and often was hired to play with these national acts including Stevie Wonder (Little Stevie Wonder at the time), The Tams, The Shirelles, Ray Charles and many others.
It is such a pleasure to be on tour with him. He is the consummate professional. On the EU tour several weeks ago, one of his song selections is Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” The song is a selection from his recent release Albert White and the Rockers. The people must be liking it because most of shows are nearly sold out. Albert imbues this song with Atlanta soul and it makes you realize the slim differences between Country and Soul. How do you think they differ?
— Aaron Greenhood