Music Maker Relief Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of the Blues gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. Our blog is dedicated to keeping the conversation about these artists alive & thriving.
Monthly archive February, 2013

“When you get old, your stove gets cold and you can’t cook shit to save your soul.”


Working at Music Maker invites death and mortality into your life. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, sad yes. But death is a condition that no living person can escape. That’s life. When you get older your body wears out, your teeth fall out, your memory isn’t any good and you can’t move as quickly as you once did. Joan, John Dee Holeman’s long-time girlfriend and caretaker, when talking about John Dee slowing down jokes, “I call him Christmas, because it feels like I’m always waiting for him.” They both laugh at this. Jerry “Boogie” McCain put it best with his quip, “when you get old, your stove gets cold and you can’t cook shit to save your soul.” I equate that kind of humor with bravery. We all know that at 85, the majority of one’s years are in the rear view and the signs are everywhere. This knowledge could be crippling. But I have seen our artists go on living and savoring each moment. Laughing at death. It is truly a privilege to be party to that spirit.

Denise shared a story with me about Mr Frank Edward’s last recording session which took place in March of 2002. This story exemplifies the spirit of the many artists I have enjoyed working with here at Music Maker.

Mr. Frank had been working on an album with Tim for a couple of years, recording a few tracks at our studio in NC and a few in Atlanta when Tim would come down to visit. They needed a few more tunes to finish the project and Mr. Frank called Tim up one day and said he had the songs ready and he thought they should get together and finish the recording. Long time friends and Music Maker volunteers Larry Garret and Lamar Jones offered to drive Mr. Frank up to Carolina from Atlanta for the session.

Mr. Frank had just celebrated his 93rd birthday and that is about as seasoned as a pro can be, so he made pretty short work of laying down the tracks in the studio and the session drew to a close in the early evening. Figuring the fellas would be hungry after a long day of driving and recording, Denise had prepared a dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and greens, a menu that didn’t require much in the way of teeth.

As they were packing up the recording gear Mr. Frank asked Tim “where’s the club at” and what was going on is Hillsborough that evening. Tim replied that seeing how it was Tuesday, probably not much at all and that he had planned on everyone having a nice dinner together and calling it a night. Mr. Frank muttered something about not hanging around that and told his drivers it was time to head back to Atlanta. With a longing look back at the laden supper table, Larry and Lamar piled in the car and headed out into the descending twilight with Mr. Frank.

A few hours down the highway, just outside of Greenville, SC, Mr. Frank started feeling a bit peckish and they stopped for a burger. As they finished their dinners in the parking lot, Mr. Frank announced he wasn’t feeling so good. Larry, a retired fireman, took one look at Frank and dialed 911. The ambulance arrived soon thereafter, but by the time it arrived at the hospital Mr. Frank had gone on to the other side.

Upon hearing this story, I felt glad for Mr Frank. He was 93, he had just finished recording and had eaten a cheeseburger on his way home to Atlanta and whatever suffering he endured was short lived. No extended hospital stays, no poking and prodding. Not a bad way to die.

Since joining Music Maker, I have had the opportunity to form strong relationships with several artists and some of them have already gone on, like Precious Bryant, Whistlin’ Britches, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, and most recently George Higgs. That’s not even a complete list. It is hard to elucidate the profound impact each of them has had on me and even harder to process their deaths.

Whistlin’s refusal of surgery after his diagnosis of advanced throat cancer at the time baffled me. He told Tim and I that he had made peace with his Lord and was ready. Precious’ mischievous gaze as she ordered another glass of wine the last night I saw her play. We both knew she shouldn’t be drinking it. But she drank it down fast, looked at me and said, “Now I’m feeling good!” Then she got up and made the whole crowd swoon. I feel blessed to spend my days here working to have a positive impact on the lives of such inspiring and often complicated individuals. As I grapple with the losses of the many great people I have been privileged to know, I am given solace knowing that we worked to make their last days more comfortable and to ensure that their spirit lives on.

Robert Lee Coleman’s Pearly Whites

Ironing Board Sam also visited the dentist when he became a Music Maker partner artist.

Ironing Board Sam also visited the dentist when he became a Music Maker partner artist.

In a society where the healthcare industry is a booming business and Americans are increasingly concerned with the upkeep of their bodies, some organs still get downright overlooked and underappreciated.

Need an example? Think about your teeth. Yes, you may go to the dentist for a cleaning twice a year and you most likely brush at least twice a day, but do you think about them as living organs? Well, they are. Each tooth contains thousands of networks of nerve fibers and blood vessels. Therefore, the health of these organs affects the health of the overall body.

Because of this, new Music Maker artists who receive assistance through the sustenance program are asked about teeth first.

It sounds strange that this would be the first question, but decaying teeth are not just a cosmetic problem; they can become a breeding ground for bacteria that can travel and cause infections.

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Robert Lee Coleman, a Music Maker artist who will soon be receiving a set of dentures from the foundation.

He hails from Macon, Georgia – the hometown of legends such as Little Richard – and music was always a part of his life. “I’ve been playing [rhythm and blues guitar] ever since I can remember,” he said.

Coleman’s musical skill shone as he had the opportunities to perform with musicians such as James Brown from 1970-1972, which was a real high point in the American popular music scene.

Despite these accomplishments, Coleman was not always paid enough to live an even somewhat comfortable life, as explained by Music Maker Executive Director Tim Duffy: “He was an incredible lead guitar player, but he didn’t make enough to get social security, it was mostly a cash business.”

Even if he had been able to get Social Security, the reality is that this government entitlement generally has no real dental plan. Thus, the elderly are especially vulnerable to infections due to decaying teeth. They are also more vulnerable to malnutrition, since the kinds of food they can eat become very limited.

Further, as a musician, not having adequate dentures can inhibit musical performance, since singing and pronunciation become more difficult.

So when Robert Lee Coleman joined the Music Maker team, the musician sustenance program was able pay for him to receive a new pair of dentures at the affordable price of $500 as opposed to the standard $1500.

When I talked to Coleman, it was hard to miss how excited he was about getting the set. I asked what he was most looking forward to and he said “I know I’ll look better! Yup, I need them!”

Even still, providing dentures to artists is more than a health or cosmetic issue, as Tim Duffy explained, “It starts the road to self-worth and dignity.”

-Cynthia Betubiza

Recording Jeff Littlejohn

It was an unseasonably warm day in mid-January when Jeff Littlejohn came out to Hillsborough to record a few songs to send to our musical director, Ardie Dean. He parked himself in our small studio space next door, surrounded by guitars, photo developing detritus and cobbled-together audio equipment; you could hear the takes standing outside the door. One of our interns from France, Raphaël, stood at the computer, queuing up rhythm tracks and making sure the audio was getting captured clearly. I was there to try and get a nice video of Jeff together, but it was hard to find a place to stick a camera in such a small space. Jeff was a good sport, and game for having a light in his face while he laid down rhythm, lead and vocals for one of his original songs all about a lady sticking to the old aphorism “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

I remember the first time I saw Jeff, when he came by the office for a photo shoot dressed in black jeans, a vest and a black leather hat—he cut an imposing figure. That Sunday, though, he was all smiles and excitement, ready to try at songs over and over again until they were right. He was inspired to play music from a young age, when he was growing up in Roper, N.C. and listening to Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reid play guitar. Jeff plays acoustic blues driven by both the strength of his voice and the obvious enthusiasm for music; we’re excited to be adding him to our Musical Development program. Check out the video for one of his songs below and let us know what you think:

“Oh, well, we should probably get my keyboard out then.”

Ironing Board Sam has bad luck with cars – but somehow always manages to coax out every mile they can give him. The day he moved to North Carolina a few years ago, his old van broke down just a few miles from the Music Maker office. When Sam rolled it into the service station, the mechanic could not believe how Sam had driven a car with a cracked engine block even an inch. Fortunately, with help from loyal supporters, Music Maker was able to find and purchase Sam another car to ensure he had transportation to gigs.

A couple weeks ago, Sam called the office from the side of interstate 40, having run out of gas. Our French intern Raphaël and I jumped in my van, filled up a gas container at the station, picked up my daughter and jumped on the highway in the middle of rush hour.

We pulled up behind Sam as the sea of cars sped by.  Raphaël and Sam tried to pour the gas in but it just went down the side of the car – the funnel on the container was broken, and the safety cap would not come off. After trying several MacGyver-style ideas, we ended up with an old paper cup standing in for the funnel and we found some success.

By this time a state patrolman was checking on us. He and Sam talked, the cop smiled, Raphaël gave him one of Sam’s albums, and everything seemed to be going our way. The car started, the patrolman made way for us to rejoin the highway and we were off.

Just as soon as we started, Sam slowed way down, drifted into the safety lane, then back into the highway. From the van, Raphaël and I saw an enormous flame and backfire come out the tailpipes of Sam’s car, so once again we all ended up on the side of the highway

Raphaël and I then noticed the undercarriage of Sam’s car was glowing hot red. He jumped out and sprinted towards Sam’s car, knocking on the window to get Sam’s attention. Sam rolled down the window and asked “What’s up?” as smoke poured out of the car. Raphaël, taking the situation a bit more seriously than Sam, yelled “Your car is on fire get out!” Sam replied “Oh, well, we should probably get my keyboard out then.” They opened the trunk to unload Sam’s gear. From the van I was wondering why they were not running, convinced the car would explode – like the action movies tell you.

Fortunately that did not happen – another patrolman arrived on the scene, and helped Sam check under the car for any flames. There were none, but Raphaël and I began loading Sam’s gear into my van while chatting with the patrolman about towing the car. While weighing our options we turned around to see Sam driving off in his car that had just been on fire. We all looked at each other in amazement. The patrolman smiled and said “He truly is something isn’t he?!”

The next morning at 7:30am, Sam called to say his car wouldn’t start. I was not surprised – but I went over to try to help him jumpstart it anyway, as he has to head to Orange County Charter School to teach the kids about Blues. Of course, we had no luck, so MM staff members took turns getting Sam to gigs and home.

This morning I am at work, and my goal today is conjuring up another car for Sam. Bluesmen can’t earn income if they can’t get to their gigs, and there are only so many rides MM staff can provide. Sam’s Caddy lasted two and a half years, transported him to gigs all over the region, and only cost $1000 – we think that’s pretty good. I’ll continue to make calls and peruse used-car websites in order to get our man Ironing Board Sam back on the road, so he can continue to captivate audiences with his music.

A Spirit That Will Never Die

David Johnson's HandsWelcome to our blog, the Music Maker Signifier, and Happy Fat Tuesday! On this day of cultural celebration, we would like to introduce you to the newest endeavor from Music Maker Relief Foundation. We are approaching our 20th anniversary—twenty years of assisting Roots music pioneers, designing our unique model of support and educating audiences worldwide. As we come to this milestone, we are more committed than ever to helping people Know The Roots. The Music Maker Signifier will be a place of music, amusement and knowledge shared with you by Music Maker staff, friends, fans and musicians.

Twenty years ago an eager and curious Tim Duffy was told it was a waste of time to search the South for authentic Mississippi Blues, Georgia Blues and North Carolina Piedmont Blues because any artist of significance had passed away in the late 1960s. But Tim explored anyway and found that while people die, the music doesn’t. There were musicians keeping these traditions going, but they were being buried alive by poverty. How could the small number of dedicated Blues researchers out there, folks like Bruce Bastin, Kip Lornell, Peter B. Lowery, George Mitchell, Axel Kustner and Bruce Lagule, find these artists, when the musicians had so many obstacles standing in the way of playing outside their home communities? Artists were still out there, living their lives and playing their music, with no thought of sharing their art with the world. Tim and I founded Music Maker to help these elderly, impoverished cultural treasures do just that.

True American Roots music still exists in rural, poor communities all over the South. Music Maker shines a light on these musicians, letting the music live on. Visit with us here at the Music Maker Signifier and see that “the Blues is a spirit that will never die.”

Check out the documentary Toot Blues, which chronicles the inception of Music Maker.


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February 2013
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