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 March, 2013

Tour Update: Australia

In case you hadn’t heard, we were incredibly fortunate to line up an incredible touring gig for some of our artists in Australia.

Bluesfest Byron Bay brought the  Music Maker Relief Foundation Blues Revue to Australia, artists including Ironing Board SamDr. BurtMajor Handy, and Pat Wilder, plus Ardie DeanAlbert White and Nashid Abdul-Khaaliq.

Aaron has been sending us updates from the road that we’d love to share with you. Check out the gallery below:

What’s in a Blues name?

The Blues has been and always will be storytelling at its core. Originally in intimate home settings with family and friends, the players chose music as their vehicle to express guitar-laden tunes, interwoven with tales of struggle and perseverance.

In human culture, the most captivating stories involve a hero, and the music of the blues is no exception. The heroes of these stories were not celebrated for their displays of perfection or superiority, but for using a stubborn courage to persevere against the odds laid down by a society that was determined to keep them down.

As the musicians played, they were transformed into the heroes of which they sang, heroes that the audience of close family and friends could strongly relate to. Thus, the entire atmosphere created a tradition of the primacy of personally relating to the audience.

Enter the role of nicknames in the blues. Nicknames express familiarity.  Someone who knows you well enough to call out your quirks gives you one. Being known by such a name to your audience reaffirms a close personal relationship as you relay your guarded tales. The audience and the hero now recognize that they indeed have met before.

As blues musicians moved away from performing in just the family setting, many wanted to maintain the trademark emotional intimacy with the audience. So, when faced with a crowd full of strangers, they took on the persona of the folk hero by using a nickname and allowed it to temporarily replicate the intimate social relationships that are the base of traditional blues performance.

Tim Duffy, Executive Director of Music Maker Relief Foundation, explained that inventiveness with language is an integral part of being a blues musician because “they’re creative people who have fun with words.” Thus, expressive nicknames are a part of the entertainment aspect of it all.

Some Music Maker artists’ names came about through their previous profession. For example, before Captain Luke was a full-time performer, he worked at a doughnut factory, and was known as the Honey-Bun Man.

Dr. Buzzard got his nickname because was a medicine man in South Carolina before going full-time into music.

Other nicknames were given in childhood and then continued on as a stage name, as is the case with James Hanks,“As a child, I was called Boo Boo ever since I could remember, I don’t remember being called anything else growing up.” As a performer, he kept this and became known as Boo Hanks.

There is a practical, business side to nicknames as well. In the age when media such as television was not yet strong and the internet was non-existent, the use of a catchy nickname that could be easily remembered and therefore spread easily was the ultimate promotional tool. This was a method used by artists such as Guitar Gabriel and Muddy Waters. Also, piggy-backing off of and tweaking the nicknames of already known performers allowed for newer artists to use some of that buzz for themselves.

The Minstrel era, which helped shape essentially all American music, also contributed to the tradition of using nicknames in blues music. In this era, each musician in the act had a stage name that became what he or she was referred to.

Whether performers today use nicknames given in childhood or create them for promotional use, the tradition sustains itself as one of the many bonds formed between the hero and his friends.

 -Cynthia Betubiza

Lakota John & Kin


Music Maker began working with a then-twelve year old guitar prodigy, Lakota John Locklear, in 2010. We’re committed to working with younger artists as time allows – we feel that young artists performing traditional music is essential to the preservation of the Roots. But to us, “young” is under 55 years old. When people see a teenager arrive on the stage they usually think “that’s great, they’re giving a kid a chance to learn the blues.” Then, usually shortly after the first bars of “San Francisco Bay” reach them, they nudge me and ask if he’s really a teenager, thinking that his grizzled, bluesy voice might prove that his youth was just an illusion.

Lakota John performs with his family, mother Tonya, father John, and sister Layla, as “Lakota John & Kin.” When he started working with MMRF, Lakota was a solo act, but the family had been jamming together on Sundays for as long as they could remember. According to Tonya they would just sit around and play, for fun, after listening to the PineCone radio program. Those family jam sessions never seemed like they would become professional to Tonya. In fact, when Tim Duffy heard the Locklears join forces during a recording and suggested they perform as a group, Tonya’s response was “I can’t sing in front of people, no, no, no. And I don’t play an instrument.”

But after a visit to Shakori Hills Music Festival in 2011, she saw a performance from Corn & the Colonels, MMRF-staffer Aaron’s band. Anna, the band’s drummer, gave a rousing washboard performance and that got Tonya thinking that she may have found her instrument. She said, “I was inspired. I sat, and I watched Anna, and I thought ‘I could do that.’ I got a washboard and I picked it up.”

It’s wonderful to watch Lakota John perform solo, but watching him play with his family is truly inspiring. I’ve always had a soft spot for family performers – probably stemming from my obsession with The Sound of Music as a little girl (and still.) And our family can barely coordinate a dinner out, let alone musical instruments, so I am incredibly impressed with not only the Locklears’ talent, but also their family dynamic.

I asked Tonya if she thought performing together helped with “family-togetherness” (if so, maybe I need to try that approach), and she actually said that the family’s strong bond and geographical closeness facilitated the group, not the other way around. Tonya knows they wouldn’t be able to perform together if sister Layla was not in college nearby, so they are happy to seize the moment while it’s there. That joy comes through when you watch them, and reminds us why we work so hard to preserve these musical traditions.

You Got To Have Rain In Your Life


Essie Mae Brooks from Perry, Georgia has been singing and writing gospel songs since she was a girl. So, she’s kind of an expert. Her songs are meditations on getting through hard times, facing mortality, and living in the moment. She has raised 5 children and is blessed with many grandchildren. Often, Essie calls in to Music Maker just to say “hi” and see how things are going. She openly prays for the well-being of those she cares for and often-times is deeply preoccupied with the suffering of others, especially children.

I called Essie Mae the other day and asked her to share a blessing for the world with me that I could share it with the Music Maker community.  She shared with me the words of her song “You Got To Have Some Rain in Your Life”:


You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
You got to have rain in all your life
To appreciate the sunshine

This old life of mine
Sure had my share of up and down
I’ve been up and I’ve been down
I’ve been pushed and shoved around
I’ve been picked out picked on
But that’s alright

You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
You got to have rain in all your life
To appreciate the sunshine

When I lost my mother
You know that was sure enough rain
When I lost my father
You know that was sure enough rain
And when I lost my sister
You know that was more rain

You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
You got to have rain in all your life
To appreciate the sunshine

Lord when trouble get all around
that ain’t nothin’ but rain
Lord when trouble get all in the way
That ain’t nothing but rain
Lord when trouble get all in the home
That ain’t nothing but more rain

You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
You got to have rain in all your life
To appreciate the sunshine

If you never had no rain in your life
Then you don’t know what I’m singing about
If you never had no rain in your life
Then you don’t know what I’m singing about

You got to have rain in your life
You got to have some rain in your life
You got to have rain in all your life
To appreciate the sunshine

Requiem for Cootie Stark


I just had a big birthday. When I reached 40, I was irked, because I felt the compulsion to accept certain realities about my life and where it might not go in the future.  Having not won an Olympic Gold medal to date, chances were it wasn’t going happen in my lifetime, nor would I be discovered the following month as America’s next Supermodel or win a Nobel Prize in anything.  I didn’t have regrets about the decisions that had shaped my life: I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful kids, meaningful work and more, but my life no longer felt a clean slate of possibility

At 50, I really don’t care about all that anymore. It is much easier to appreciate myself and others as creatures all the more wonderful for our imperfections. I feel much more gratitude than yearning. Although, to be entirely truthful, I can’t say that I found birthday greetings from AARP in the form of an invitation to join the legion of the aging and Blues Cross’ invitation to get my first colonoscopy cause for celebration.

More than anything else, it is my work with Music Maker artists that has shaped this optimism over the past decade.  I’ve witnessed dozens of musicians transform their careers and lives in the 60s and 70s – it ain’t over till it’s over. All it takes is a willingness to take a little risk and open your mind.

Requiem for Cootie Stark
Eulogy at funeral services
April 19, 2005, Greenville, SC

“I know he was born Johnny Miller – but to me and thousands of music lovers around the world this dear man will be remembered as Cootie Stark, the King of the Piedmont Blues.

Cootie was born 1926 in Abbeville, SC. As a child he couldn’t see well enough to spend much time in school – so instead he spent his time with his guitar and began to sing. He learned much from the music of his Uncle Chump, Baby Tate and other musicians in his community.

We met Cootie in 1995.  Tim had just started Music Maker and we had a theory: If you take a great musician who may have fallen on hard times and get them a proper instrument and a respectable stage they will rise to the occasion.

And rise Cootie did  – he took our mission to heart and worked hard, playing any sort of gig we could book, practicing guitar and rekindling old songs to broaden his repertoire.

In 1997, at the age of 71 he launched a new career for himself when he opened for Aretha Franklin at the Newport Rhythm & Blues Festival. And as the years went by, throughout his 70s, we just marveled at how he got better and better. Cootie proved our theory right.

Although blind since a young man, Cootie never let his disability limit his experience of the world and he traveled far and wide. He loved nothing more than to go to new lands and share his special gift of music – New York, LA, Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Vegas – THE BLUES was on the move with Cootie.

He was absolutely intrepid and although blind thought nothing of traveling alone to a city he had never been before- Planes, trains, cars, buses, boats – and he hated boats – but he was already ready to go. What inspired us most is that he never complained. The strange food, hotels, the long, late hours – he embraced it all and kept his companions laughing all the while.

He toured with Taj Mahal, played the Lincoln Center, the Chicago Blues Festival and dozens of other festivals and clubs; This month he was scheduled to perform at the finest festival in the land, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival.

Cootie Stark was Music Maker’s greatest ambassador introducing countless donors to our cause and in the nearly 10 years we worked with him he performed hundreds of sets all across America, Europe and Costa Rica.

Cootie issued 2 CDs in his lifetime, Sugar Man in 1999 on the Cello Recordings label and Raw Sugar on the Music Maker label in 2002. He is a featured voice on Sol: Volume Blue and also appears in the book and CD set Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America.  He completed work on a new solo CD this past December.

He and several other Music Maker artists worked with Kenny Wayne Shepherd last spring on DVD set due out this summer and Cootie also starred in the documentary Living the Blues which we hope to issue as a DVD this fall.

The South Carolina General Assembly and the Arts Commission named Cootie Stark a recipient of the 2005 SC Folk Heritage Award.

Cootie was a man of tremendous faith and terrific joy. People adored him wherever he went.  He had such an open heart and was always ready to make a new friend.  Rock stars, millionaires, mechanics or waitresses – they were all the same to Cootie. He always had time for a chat and a good story.

Cootie made you feel like you counted. One way he did this was by giving you a new name – I was Dee Dee and among our friends he christened Wanika the Wanika, Ole Tim, Jacki the Jacki, Dannyland – and 50 years from now our good buddy Christopher Uhler will still be known as Christmas.

Cootie touched the lives of thousands with his unique, acoustic blues and uplifting testimony. He leaves behind hundreds of friends, many of which came to see him in his last weeks. His legacy lives on through his own Piedmont Blues and the joyous remembrance of his warm, open smile, ready laugh and immense faith.

It is hard to say good-bye to this very dear friend. But, he was so adamant, so completely certain that he would spend eternity in the Promised Land. In his confidence, I find comfort knowing that already he is smiling down at us, saying “Dee Dee, you’re sooo right.”  We love you, Cootie – you’ll be with us always.”


On The Importance Of Selling Merch

photo by Tom Ciaburri

photo by Tom Ciaburri

Nobody works as hard as a Bluesman, and if you’ve ever been at a bar where Ironing Board Sam is performing, you believe it. An energetic stage show is almost always followed by mingling with the audience, as Sam is a consummate professional, and on top of that is genuinely pleased to see everyone who shows up to hear him sing. After a set, you might find him shaking hands with every patron in the place. Last year, at the Eddy Pub, I watched as Sam spent every break chatting with fans, answering questions about his music and life, and thanking them for coming out just to see his show.

For Sam, I know it’s about loving what he does, but it’s also about the business. To supplement the pay from gigs, many artists depend on CD/merch sales – impulse purchases from people who loved the show. Making sure they connect with the audience – whether they do it from onstage or in the crowd afterwards – is essential to making the most of a gig.

One friend of mine, a younger musician, recently took the stage in a disturbingly ugly hat. He played two songs, and took it off, at the request of the audience, to continue his set. But he put it right back on as he headed out to his merch table at the end of the show. He told me “People come up to ask about the hat; they recognize me, and that helps, especially if I’m one of multiple opening acts. If they come up to talk to me, they might buy a CD.”

Most of our artists rely heavily on the income from merch sales at their gigs. Music Maker grants our artists CDs to sell at their shows, and it makes a difference for them. Instead of taking home just $200 for a bar gig, I’ve seen artists double that when you add in tips and sales. It’s so great to see musicians like Sam enjoying their audience, and it’s even better to see that he can increase his income with the albums Music Maker helped him record. So, when you’re out at a show, remember to stop by the merch table. Sure, you could listen to an artist’s music on Spotify the next day, but when you buy a CD from Ironing Board Sam, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, or any other number of performers, you’re contributing to their gas money, rent and getting them to that next gig. When you buy their music, you ensure it stays alive.

Blues Traveling

Traveling with artists to shows is an essential, especially when your goal is to bring Roots music to audiences around the country and the world. Along the way I have often faced challenges similar to those most travelers deal with, except I’m traveling with elderly musicians who sometimes have never left their home state. While traveling with B.B. King when he was recording his “Duets Wild” album, he gave me this advice: “Always leave very early, give yourself time, there is no need to add stress to yourself, if something goes wrong you have time to work this out.”

This advice has proved very valuable many times. Once while John Dee Holeman and I were off to Switzerland, he discovered at the security check that he had packed an expired passport. Luckily we had time to drive back to his home, get his current passport, and still make our flight.

Guitar Gabriel and I travelled so much in the early 1990s that we knew all the skycaps by name. One day we arrived at the airport en route to Belgium. The skycap cheerfully greeted Gabe, got him a wheelchair and whisked him away, yelling back at me to meet them at the gate. I checked our bags, got our tickets and headed to our gate, but Gabe was nowhere in sight. I looked at all the gates near ours, to no avail. I went to the security desk to have him paged, but still no Gabe. Sitting looking out at the runway, I noticed a plane, in line to take off, turn around and come back to the gate. In a few minutes, a very aggravated stewardess wheeled Gabe out from the jetway and hastily returned back to the plane.

Gabe told me the skycap put him on the plane to Nashville, TN, since he was a musician. He said, “I was on the plane waiting for you and you did not come. When I realized I was on the wrong plane, they told me I would have to go to Nashville and then come back. I sprung from my seat and started beating my cane on the baggage compartments trying to get to that pilot and give him a piece of my mind, when they decided to bring me back.” Luckily we still made our flight.

On a layover in the Detroit airport returning from Australia with Macavine Hayes, he disappeared. I looked everywhere for him, then I heard my name called out on the PA. I learned that Macavine had stepped outside to smoke, but, not being able to read so well, he went through a door to the tarmac where the planes were being fueled. Homeland Security found him sitting on a baggage carrier smoking a cigarette. Their protocol demanded that they check him out thoroughly. In the meantime, they insisted I go aboard my plane assuring me that Macavine would be there to board in plenty of time for take off. I waited anxiously, but they suddenly closed the plane door, with no Macavine. I asked about my friend, and they said he would not make the flight after all, but told me not to worry because they would put him up at an airport hotel and send him to Raleigh the next morning. I just did not have the nerve to act as my old partner Gabe (and I had no cane to bang on the baggage compartments) so I flew on without Macavine. He did make his flight the next day, and made it home just fine.

I could go on and on about flight stories, they are always eventful and took new twists and turns, often unexpected, most always frustrating and unnerving. Over the years I have learned to relax and do my best knowing it is a rare and beautiful thing when all goes well.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Your Own

“You listen to my CD in your ear, wear my tee shirt on your chest, and you’ll feel good about yourself in the morning.” This was Guitar Gabriel’s mantra between tunes at every one of the hundred bar gigs and festival sets I watched him play in the last 4 years of his career. He repeated it so many times each show that it became a running joke with the audience. But it wasn’t a joke to Gabe; the merch sales doubled his take every night, making poor paying bar gigs worth playing.

What Gabe understood deeply was that while a musician and a poet, he was also a self-employed entrepreneur. Gabe has pretty much retired and only played for his community near the housing project where he lived in Winston-Salem, NC when Tim Duffy showed up on his from door in 1990. But Gabe saw an opportunity to revive his career in the energy of this young, ambitious folklorist that offered to find gigs, manage band members and do all of the promotional work (and the diving). Not believing lengthy contracts were worth the paper they were printed on, Gabe offered Tim a simple arrangement: they would work as partners and if Tim ever cheated him, Gabe would shoot Tim.

Tim thought it was an honest deal and for the scores of gigs that followed, at the end of the night Tim would chase down the elusive bar owners and squeeze then for the band’s percentage of the door. Then, he and Gabe would sit and count the cash together and divide the proceeds, pay the drummer, the gas money, etc.  They worked together for the remainder of Gabe’s life as partners and the best of friends.

With the exception of symphony players and full time teachers, most musicians do not work as salaried employees. So whether you are a singer songwriter that performs solo, a principle partner in a band, a session player or a sideman for a touring act, like it or not, you are running your own business.

At Music Maker we try and do our best to empower entrepreneurship in the artists we serve.  We also try to supply the support services in terms of promotion, radio distribution and public relations. Music Maker grants these services to partner artists at no charge. However, for most working musicians it is either DI-all-Y or collaborating with any number of players, agents, and managers to make your business function, and those folks may often stand between you and your money. Record companies and music publishers represent another set of complicated relationships that need to be carefully scrutinized and considered for their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Not all of your business arrangements will be as simple as Tim and Gabe’s, but the only way any business relationship can be successful is if the responsibilities, rights of ownership and compensation of all parties is clearly delineated from the beginning.  The deal can change over time as the business changes or grows, but everyone should always know where they stand. These conversations can be uncomfortable. I have seen bands fall apart over the split on imaginary future royalties for albums they haven’t recorded yet. But, if a band can’t come to consensus about their finances from the start, they have little chance of agreeing when there is big money coming in or big bills to pay down the line.

I find many artists are averse to spending time reviewing financial statements and coming to terms with the realities of self-employment, especially from a tax prospective.  You can hire people to help you, but I always suggest keeping an eye on your own bank balances, income and expenses. The artists we have worked with that are proactive in this regard find it very liberating and occasionally lucrative. They also never waste time playing the “I got ripped off” blues.


Mother Blues’s Mac and Cheese Muffins

Soul food and Roots music share a common birthplace among the poor, rural communities in the American South. As I recently read on, “…soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access.”

Music had a place in survival too. As John Dee Holeman told a group of elementary school children this fall when asked where the Blues came from, “When you were young, the work was hard, and the pay wasn’t good. You couldn’t get mad about it. So, you had the Blues.” That touched me—music was an outlet, a way to express feelings that you couldn’t otherwise, because they might endanger your job or your life.

Both of these traditions have held fast—for many reasons. But what I wanted to touch on is that both the deeply comforting (totally unhealthy) southern soul food and the raw, unadorned Blues, to me, evoke the sense of warmth and welcoming that I have felt so many times since transplanting myself to the South from my birthplace in Pennsylvania.

When I thought of writing about the connection between food and the Blues, there were so many things I could have covered. Denise’s stories of feeding large crowds during recording sessions in Music Maker’s early days, the time I thought our artists would enjoy eating pizza before a gig (after a stern talking-to from Aaron, I will NOT make that mistake again), to Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen’s Mac and Cheese muffins. But what came out when I sat down at the computer was: both these food and musical traditions came from places of pain, from survival. But now, to me, they symbolize love and support.

When you have something great, something you love, something that means so much to you—you want to share it. Ask Mother Blues for a recipe and she’ll give you six. She’s the same with her music—all our artists are. They want to share it, because it’s what they love. When you eat food Mother Blues worked hard on, you feel the love. When you listen to her sultry yet booming voice pleading with you to get up and dance (and burn off some of that bread pudding) at a show, you feel the love. She loves it and shares it with you. Music and food are two of the cultural treasures of the South that will not die, as long as they continue to be loved, because people will continue to share them.

Pat “Mother Blues’” Mac and Cheese Cup Cakes

1 box Large elbow macaroni
3 Eggs
1 stick Butter
Salt and Pepper to taste (1T. Suggested)
2C. Heavy Cream or Low Fat Milk or evaporated
1 C. Cream Cheese
1 Can Cream of Mushroom Soup
1 Pack Cracker Barrel New York Sharp Cheese (shredded)
1 bag cheddar cubes or cubed Velveeta
1 sleeve Ritz Crackers

In a big pot fill halfway with water and add 3 T. sea salt. When water starts to boil, add macaroni. IMPORTANT! Under-cook the macaroni (The macaroni will cook also in sauce.) When macaroni is almost done pour water off.

In a double boiler whisk eggs over double boiler until eggs are custard. Add milk, cream cheese, soup, salt, pepper, 2/3 stick of butter and shredded CB Cheese. (Save some of the cheese for toppings.) Mix in. Stir slowly until melted into a sauce.

Mix in macaroni with cheese sauce.

Make the crust: Crush Ritz Crackers with melted butter. Place about 2 T. in each tin. Put a chunk of cheese in each tin, add macaroni mixture on top, then top with shredded cheese. Bake for 25 minutes at 400* in a pre heated oven. Let rest for about ½ hr.

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