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.
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Of Grills and Thrills: Postcard from Bernice, LA


Big Bertha, Magdalena, Theresa, Melvina; names tossed around with such affection you’d think they were referring to wives, lovers or children. Nope. BBQs. Bernice, Louisiana (pop. 1,648) has as many grills as it has rooftops. They take their grilling seriously.

A few weeks ago, Music Maker visited Bernice to shoot some music videos with Music Maker’s newest partner artist and one of its proud residents, Robert Finley. In advance of our visit, Communications Coordinator, Corn Lewis, discussed hosting a cookout for one of our shoots. Robert said there was no need to make any calls, as soon as the BBQ was lit, people would trickle in from every direction.

Early Saturday morning, Robert’s neighbor and closest confidant, Sherman, AKA Minnie, showed up wearing an apron and began to wash and prepare the 80lb box of chicken  thighs we picked up the night before. He stood over the sink, peeling skin and rinsing, stopping occasionally to sip from his beer.


Diggin’: Get It by George Stancell


Listen: Get It

I was speaking to George Stancell on the phone yesterday morning. We were chatting about the fantastic CD he sent me, a compilation of recordings he has personally written, performed and produced over the past 45 years.

George is one of a few exceptional musicians we have just recently been introduced to from Milwaukee and the surrounding areas. To pay the bills, George, 75, worked as a welder on the railroad and ran a nightclub, but he has been a musician all his life, playing guitar, piano and singing. As he was telling me his history, I asked him where he found the time to do all of this. As a nightclub proprietor and railroad worker, he literally worked night and day.

George grew up sickly and small. When the men left the house to go work in the foundries, he was left at home. The shame he felt during that time instilled in him a tenacious desire to work. When he finally got big enough to do the work, there was no stopping him. Day and night, it was his joy in life.

“You know Aaron, right now I’m talking to you from this bar where I’m working as a bartender. I just love to be busy, put me on the road.”

This track, “Get It” is a truly inspiring mantra. George wrote and recorded it in the late ‘60s. It’s fresh and funky, so go ahead and get it! Meet George Stancell.


This year in Tintypes

Two weeks ago, Captain Luke came down to Music Maker with his daughter Theresa for a tintype photo shoot. It was a chilly rainy day, so we set up the shoot inside the studio. As head chemist, having the entire shoot take place in the studio is not my first choice. The studio is the very place where the darkroom is set up, where the plates are coated, sensitized and eventually developed and fixed. The process is very sensitive to dust and as one might assume, more people equals more dust.

On the other hand, when the shoot is in the studio, the process becomes a collaboration with the subject at every step. We all sit together in the dark as we load the plate from the silver bath to the plate holder and again while the plate is being developed and we all huddle together over the sink to watch the image appear  . Conversation passes freely and often we’ll put some music on. 15 plates can take a number of hours and it is a great opportunity for Tim and I to connect with artists we haven’t seen in a while and make lasting memories along with photos that are distinct and eye catching.

When Captain and Theresa sat for their portrait taken together, I could see a pride and satisfaction in Theresa’s eyes that gave me a shudder. She told Tim and I later that this was the first time in her life that she had a picture taken with her father, Captain Luke. It was truly an honor to be a part of that significant moment.

What follows is a portfolio of some highlights from our past sessions. Coming up, we have sessions scheduled with Ben Payton, Ironing Board Sam, Cary Morin, Captain Luke, Dom Flemons and Dr. Dixon.

Bon Voyage to year-long interns

Simon and Raphael with Captain Luke

Raphael and Simon with Captain Luke and Ironing Board Sam

Last week we said bon voyage to our two French interns, Raphaël and Simon, who have been with us since last October.  As they head back to France and University, they carry with them the many experiences and great training they received playing with Ironing Board Sam, Captain Luke, John Dee Holeman and others. They visited many homebound artists throughout the South. They also logged countless hours in our archive, and we thought it right to catalog a bit of the amazing work they completed while with us.

Simon Arcache, a third year student from Sciences Po Toulouse, France, set to work on the photo archive. He spent over 200 hours meticulously scanning 700 photographs in multiple formats. He spent an additional 40 hours with Tim, tagging and ranking a total of 70,000 images. The digital photography archive is now conditioned for sharing with the Southern Folklife Collection in the Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill.

(Be sure to check out the Timothy Duffy collection!)

The great attention to detail required to get high quality photo scans gave Simon the opportunity to study the photography we have in our collection closely. The experience inspired Simon to pick up a camera and begin shooting photos himself. He learned black and white photographic processes and wound up returning to France with several cameras, a box of film and an enlarger, replacing clothes in his luggage. The photo archive takes a smidge over 1 TB of space and contains 1779 pictures of Ironing Board Sam alone.

Raphaël Evrard, also a third year student from Sciences Po Toulouse, France, trolled through and organized our expansive audio archive. In his first three months at Music Maker, Raphaël completed digitizing and databasing all of Tim’s digital audiotapes, a project that’s been going on since 2003. Comprised of 80,372 individual tracks spanning 1,922 recording sessions, it would take almost 2,000 hours to listen to it beginning to end, or about 83 days.

The collection will now be housed by the Southern Folklife Collection in the Wilson library at UNC Chapel Hill where scholars and students can access the collection from anywhere in the world. While digitizing and organizing the Music Maker catalog, Raphaël began mastering sound engineering through recording 6 projects including the forthcoming Lakota John and Kin record, Shelton Powe’s upcoming release and several others.

Through their hard work and passion, Raphaël and Simon left a mark on Music Maker that won’t soon fade. Thanks guys!


Shots from the Music Maker Grotto: Dom Flemons, Justin Robinson and Nashid Abdul-Khaaliq

Long time friend, Music Maker supporter and ace photographer Mark Austin says, “its really pretty simple,” before he proceeds to blow our minds.

It’s Saturday morning or a Wednesday afternoon and we are standing in the Music Maker Grotto studio. Mark is adjusting and angling high power flash bulbs and giant reflective white boards while Tim sets up the 8 x10 camera and Whitney, Thomas and I take his instructions, locate film backs and generally hustle in every direction.

“The human eye wants to see light originating from one source,” Mark says, “overlapping shadows don’t make sense, it’s like a world with two Suns.” Ok, that makes sense, I think to myself. With that the lesson is over. Justin sits in the modeling chair and as we capture some digital shots, we look back at the computer screen to see beautiful image, one after the other pop up on the screen. Thrilling!

Since painted black, the grotto studio has become the perfect controlled lighting setting. In short order, we have had several very productive shoots. Here are some top picks from the past few sessions.

– Aaron


Center for Documentary Studies: Ms. Pudding’s Social Club

Ms. Pudding’s drink house is a neighborhood gathering space where people go to meet friends, have a drink and a fried bologna sandwich. The last time I was there, the Avon lady stopped by and my new friends took a break from chatting to stock up on their makeup and antiperspirant. I might add that I am about 50 years younger than the average patron, but I felt no distance. In Ms. Puddin’s “social club” all are welcome and the overarching ethos is of fellowship and good times.

On my first visit to Ms Puddin’s, chaperoned by Captain Luke and Big Ron, we played music, told stories, had a few drinks and passed the time. We arrived at around 10:30am and the first time I looked at my watch, it read 2pm. The second time I looked down it read 5pm. The way time passed was unusual and surprising. I can’t wait to go back.

Check out this great portrait of Ms. Puddings, made by our friends at the Center for Documentary Studies:

And more about the student who produced it:

Gabriela is an international student pursuing a Masters degree at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  An avid travel from Ecuador, Gabriela’s interest has always been peeked by cultural diversity. This class offered her the opportunity to experience a new aspect of North Carolina’s culture through the blues. She is excited to use her new skills to relay messages of environmental and cultural importance in the future.

Music Maker Australia Tour March 2013, 1st Stop Perth

From Left to Right: Major Handy, Dr. Burt, Pat Wilder, Ironing Board Sam, Albert White, Ardie Dean (not pictured: Nashid Abdul-Khaliq)

From Left to Right: Major Handy, Dr. Burt, Pat Wilder, Ironing Board Sam, Albert White, Ardie Dean (not pictured: Nashid)

It has been just over a month since the Music Maker Blues Revue returned from Australia. The full experience is finally carving itself down to a cohesive memory.

As a primer, the Music Maker Blues Revue has performed at the Byron Bay Blues Festival in New South Wales, Australia, eight times. The Blues festival itself is remarkable; over a four-day weekend, more than 150,000 music fans tramp around a fairground with five tented stages all day to revel at some of the world’s greatest Roots, Blues, Soul and Rock performers. Along with the Blues Revue, this past year’s offerings included Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite and more.

Byron Bay Blues Festival has earned a reputation as being one of the world’s greatest music festivals.  Seeing this as an opportunity, the festival now brings in select acts to tour the rest of Australia around the dates of the festival. One of these opportunities was generously bestowed upon the Music Maker Blues Revue. Our tour started us in the farthest reaches of Australia, deep in the bush. Known as the most remote major city in the world and the capital of Western Australia, Perth is built on mining wealth and it has the air of a thriving boom-town. It has a beautiful skyline and clean streets lined with boutiques and well appointed restaurants. We literally traveled more than halfway around the world to get there from our starting point. When we landed, it was 14 hours into the future.

We were all there, all except for Major Handy. I thought, ”Well, this shouldn’t be a problem.” We had another 24 hours before we were set to go on stage at the West Coast Roots and Blues Festival, our very first show of the tour and Major Handy’s first show with the Blues Revue, ever. I think I gave air travel too much credit.

How did it all turn out? Well, Major’s flight out of Lafayette, LA was delayed causing him to miss his connecting flight in Los Angeles. He ended up having to spend the night at an airport hotel and wait for the next day’s flight out. His new arrival time would get him to the venue just an hour before we were supposed to go on stage. Yes, Major had not played with the band yet, but Ardie had been preparing Nashid, Albert and himself, working on Major’s material over the phone and by CD. They had not all been in the same room together, but through the magic of technology they had been playing with Major regularly since January when the lineup was confirmed (and after we’d made sure everyone had active passports).

Forty-five minutes before we were supposed to go on, we were sitting in our dressing tent when the flap pulled back to reveal a travel weary Major carrying his luggage and a flight case with his accordion. In spite of the three days he had been in transit, he had a big smile on his face and hugs and salutations for everyone. Before he sat down, he reached into his bag to pull out a washboard and two bottle openers with the handles wrapped in duct tape and handed them straight to Pat Wilder. “Hey Pat, you ever played one of these?” Major demonstrated a few rhythms that Pat copied. “You’re a natural!” he exclaimed, “I need you to play it during my set.”

Pat replied, “Cool.”

I asked Major if he wanted to wash up before the show and we found a locker room with showers. Fifteen minutes later, he looked like a new man and we were backstage watching Dr. Burt open the show to a capacity crowd, probably 8,000 to 10,000 people.

Needless to say, each of their performances was a massive hit. When Nashid dropped the signature bass groove of Major Handy’s original “Zydeco Feeling,” the entire crowd was rocking.  The whole group fell in and Pat played the washboard without missing a beat. It was a truly amazing start to our 10-day tour Down Under.

Next up… Melbourne, Justin and the miracle rehearsal.

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

“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.

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February 2017
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