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 April, 2013

Music Maker artists a la American Splendor

My brother Dan brought home each American Splendor comic book as Harvey Pekar published them when I was growing up.  Harvey Pekar was a jazz critic, an original bebop fan, who wrote an annual comic about daily life in the Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland where he served as file clerk.  His old record-picking friend, the great Robert Crumb of Zap Comics,  helped Harvey launch his American Splendor series.

In 1999 I was touring with Taj Mahal and the Music Maker Blues Revue and we had a date in Cleveland. Harvey reviewed a CD and wrote about our show in the local paper. The next day Dan and I spent time with Harvey at the VA, at the art museum and at his home. I asked Harvey if he would help me develop a comic strip series about the Music Maker artists.  Harvey wrote the first few of the series with his artist Gary Dumm illustrating.  This team that I grew up so greatly enjoying, who already had given me a real education, gave Music Maker a hand up. Soon after Harvey’s big movie came out he did not have time to continue writing but Gary Dumm took on the writing as well and created this huge collection.



Check out the comics below:



Students Documenting Artists

Students from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University gathered at Music Maker's office to share final projects.

Students from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University gathered at Music Maker’s office to share final projects.

One of the great boons to being located in the Triangle region of North Carolina is the thriving cultural scene: museums, music and film abound, and this atmosphere naturally lends itself to the kind of work that we do at Music Maker. Not only that, but our musicians and the genres they tend to play also have strong roots in the surrounding community. Part of this is owed to a huge population of smart, eager students and professionals at three major universities – the driving force behind the Research Triangle Park and a huge opportunity to connect with a group of younger music fans.

We were able to team up with the great folks over at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, which offers undergraduate and continuing education courses in film, photography, audio and writing; we mentioned the class back when it first started on our website.  DOCST 460S: “Multimedia Documentary” is a course taught by Christopher Sims.  Students were granted access access to MMRF archives but focused on creating original content for our website through video, still photography and audio fieldwork.

The students came to visit us yesterday to show off their final projects (all but one, which was still in production due to some shooting done over the weekend at Shakori Hills.) They worked in groups of three or four to produce videos and ancillary materials about several local Music Maker artists – the pieces we saw focused on Ironing Board Sam, Ben Payton and Captain Luke.

Students were eager to talk about their experiences working with the artists and learning the ins and outs of documenting such dynamic people. The group that worked with Ben Payton became big fans – so much so that they decided to treat him to a steak because of a story he had shared with them about knowing he’d made it when he could sit down with a fancy steak.

As a former CDS intern, I was ecstatic to form a connection between the two organizations and gratified that we were able to engage the students with artists who are outside of the mainstream student canon. They were also able to fulfill one of our main mission goals – documenting our artists and their work so that they are more culturally accessible – while developing their documenting skills. We’re excited to share their work with you in the coming months!

Ironing Board Sam’s “Hibilon Poem”


*At Music Maker, our hearts and thoughts are with all those affected by the tragedy in Boston yesterday. We think this poem from artist Ironing Board Sam is particularly appropriate right now.

I went to pick up Ironing Board Sam this last Saturday morning for a photo shoot.

He was in a great mood and wanted to discuss World Peace.  He told me he had written a poem called the “Hibilon Poem.”

“Hibilon,” he told me, meant “everlasting.”

Ever since we started working with Sam, we’ve noticed him always thinking about how the world can be a better place. He is very disturbed by world hunger and that a child could go hungry anywhere, when we have so much in the world. He’s got ideas on pollution, on kids education and on a plethora of other subjects. He was thinking that morning about a set of basic rules that we all could live by that would make this world a better place.

He told me this poem he was thinking about, so I decided to write it down:

The formula for everlasting peace on the face of the EARTH. Remember these words before each decision.

The Simple Guidelines of Life:

#1 Be fair with each other
This alone would bring peace to the Earth. Be fair with your wife, the law, your God.

#2 True love means no harm
I’m human, you’re human. All humans are related. If I am a true human being, I love you as true human beings. There should be no war. Let’s love each other. This would bring everlasting peace.

#3 The human touch means so much
That means we shake hands. I want to hug my wife, my children. Join hands when you pray. Feeling a young baby, you feel the touch of human life.

All of this came through being in conjunction with the supreme spirit. The being that created the universes.

Hibilon means from the super spirit, God. This will bring everlasting peace. Spread these words.

Thanks for reading Sam’s poetry – we think he’s a smart man.

— Tim Duffy

Dr. Burt Goes To Dartmouth

Dr. Burt flew up north this past weekend to perform with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and give a lecture at Dartmouth College.

What Dom Flemons had to say in the program’s notes:

“Since the Chocolate Drops play a lot of music that is historical, mentorship has always been a way of being able to personify the music. Sometimes mentorship is the tunes you learn, other times it’s just the experience of being with these older people who’ve been around all this time—they bring that to you. Because when an artist mentors you, they bring not just themselves but also all the people who mentored them as well. All that energy’s brought to the present. As the person taking on the skills, you’re able to interpret and also personify those experiences. It gives you the ability to be able to reproduce the original work, but also the option to express it yourself, if you desire.

“When you spend time with a person you can generally dissect their music in a way you couldn’t do from a recording. A record just captures the one moment when it was recorded. But when you spend time with a person, you’re learning those numbers and playing them again and again, but you also get the memories of the person you’re with.

“(The great blues musician) Joe Thompson passed in February 2012. I have memories of him that go beyond just the songs I know of his repertory. So many musicians are extremely talented, but 80% of them didn’t play professionally for most of their lives. Dr. Burt was heavily involved in the Civil Rights, which is interesting in itself—he wasn’t just a musician. Music was a sideline, a hobby, something he did as part of his life. He brings all these other experiences—boxer, farmer, etc. Certain artists understand when an opportunity is presented, they have a chance to get their music out there in a way they couldn’t previously. He instantly saw that opportunity; he saw he could make a difference with the music he was presenting: ‘I can talk about history and the life I’ve lived.’ He’s not only mentoring young people, but he is leading the way for older musicians who might not think their own music is of interest.

“He has a unique style of playing—he does a lot of Jimmy Reed numbers, but in his own idiosyncratic style. It’s not super intricate, but it’s a very rhythmic style with certain licks. And his vocal style is great—it’s a whole package. When I play with an elder, I want to find where he is at, and get the feeling of the music, then craft a part that works with what he’s doing. There’s a particular feeling he is getting from that music. I try to settle in and see what that feeling is. This helps me understand how I’d go about fitting material to my own style. I’m breaking down and analyzing stylistic differences.

“It’s like comparing philosophies. Most of the mentorship comes from talking about stuff and finding the different realms in which you and the other person walk together. Hey, folk music isn’t rocket science! But when you lock into that abstract area mentally, the music usually comes out brilliantly.”


-Dom Flemons

The Drink House

Captain Luke outside Ezelle's

Captain Luke outside Ezelle’s

It seemed to me that everyone in the neighborhood would come by Ezelle’s drink house in Winston-Salem, when I was living nearby in the early ‘90s. You would see white tobacco growers from Stokes County looking for workers, preachers and their staff, and parents leaving their kids in the car to have a quick cocktail. Community musicians such as Willa Mae Buckner, Mr. Q, Jahue Rorie, Guitar Red, Macavine Hayes and Hawkeye would often wander through, and there at Ezelle’s is where I heard these musicians, many of whom Music Maker went on to partner with after our founding, perform for the first time.


Ezelle was a beloved community leader, having run an ongoing drink house for over 40 years, which was open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and Ezelle had never spent one night in jail.  Drink houses, like Mississippi juke joints, are set up in people’s homes. Folks come in to buy a beer or a shot of liquor, to borrow money. Or look for jobs; drink houses are true community institutions. In Winston-Salem, there are few legal bars in many of the neighborhoods. In fact, North Carolina does not have a tavern culture due to its location at the heart of the Bible Belt. Yet, I know people who have been going to drink houses since the late 1930s. Back in the older days, these houses were distinguished by red lights in the outside porch lights. Some were small, while others were quite elaborate. Many supported live music, and I have met many artists throughout the South who supported themselves for decades in such establishments.


Ezelle’s drink house was a colorful home. He always had a rabbit hutch out back filled with possums that he was feeding corn. He was often cooking roasted possum in the oven or boiling fat back on the stove-top. Moonshine was hidden out in the backyard, and cases of Seagram’s gin lined the hallways. The kitchen featured a big chain and lock around his refrigerator, and there were always people sitting on his porch. This is the welcoming place that, in the early 1990s, I met many of the most talented and wonderful musicians that I have had the pleasure of working with.

— Tim Duffy

Visiting Artists


This March, Tim and our interns from France, Simon and Raphael, headed on a trip to Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Lafayette and Middlesex, NC to visit with artists. They visited with Eddie TignerDr. BurtAdolphus BellAlabama Slim,Little Freddie KingLeyla McCalla,Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, Major Handy and Algia Mae Hinton.

Raphael, Simon and Tim drove out from the MM offices on a Friday, March 22 to get to Birmingham, AL. They were not planning to stop in Atlanta, but unfortunately traffic had other plans. Deadlocked at 5pm, they got off the highway for some dinner and met up with Eddie Tigner. Eddie, a keyboardist who has toured all over the world with Music Maker, was in good spirits and doing well.

On Saturday morning, Tim and the interns paid a visit to Dr. Burt in Birmingham, AL. He was preparing for his trip to Australia to tour with the MM Revue. A trip like that is a wonderful opportunity for Dr. Burt, a bluesman and former civil rights activist who studied under Coretta Scott King. Dr. Burt is one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet, and gigs like the Australia tour provide not only much needed income, but new audiences for his music.

Adolphus Bell also lives in Birmingham, and Tim introduced Simon and Raphael to him that day. Adolphus was living out of his van when he first began a partnership with MMRF; after working with our Musical Development program he built a thriving career. However, for the past several years Adolphus has been battling lung cancer. Currently he is just beginning to walk again and get back on his feet. He is still not up to recording or performing, severely limiting his income. MMRF ensures his safety and comfort with a monthly stipend through our Musician Sustenance program.

After a stop in Jackson, Mississippi, it was off to New Orleans to visit with Alabama Slim and Little Freddie King. They met up with the two at a bar in the French Quarter, along with MM Next Generation Artist Leyla McCalla and Guitar Lightnin’ Lee.

Slim is ready to tour again, and asked for MMRF’s help in booking him more gigs. We’re going to work with him to increase his touring, as he only had a few gigs this year. One strategy would be to record him a new album, which we’re looking into. Little Freddie King and Guitar Lightin’ Lee are both booking their own gigs now; assistance from MMRF enabled them to increase their presence in New Orleans and are now representatives for Music Maker’s work.

The group continued to Lafayette, where they met Major Handy at his body shop. They listened to him play accordion, accompanied by his wife on the washboard, and talked about how MMRF can help this legendary Zydeco artist. Major Handy told them he and wife Frances had been hit hard by Katrina, and to make ends meet they had to drop their health insurance. Immediately after, Frances was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and she is still suffering from the effects of the treatment she was able to get. Tim connected them with the NOLA Musicians Clinic where she can receive quality medical care, and we granted Major Handy a new accordion and CDs to sell at performances to help increase his income.

It had been several years since Tim visited Algia Mae Hinton in person. At one time, Algia Mae was among the youngest artists MMRF worked with, now, in her advanced age, she is in a wheelchair and cannot play the instruments she once did. She still tries though, and had Tim re-string her guitar and banjo. Tim complied, and then played the guitar while she sang. Her voice, and her wits, are as strong as ever. In her retirement, Music Maker provides her with a monthly stipend to ensure her basic needs are met. Tim tried to say “goodbye” for three hours – he will come back soon. There’s nothing like hearing Algia Mae sing “Cook cornbread for your husband and biscuits for your outside man” live, after all.

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April 2013
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