When a Music Maker Partner artist passes away, folks always ask me, how many artists do we still have with us and is this the end of Music Maker? This is exactly why I started the Music Maker Relief Foundation in 1994. Blues fieldworkers in the 1970s and 1980s such as Peter B. Lowery, George Mitchell, Axel Kustner and Bill Ferris all did incredible work finding wonderful artists. However, these artists they found still remained in total obscurity. The ones that lived until the late 1990s found some great recognition, such as Son Thomas, R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner and Precious Bryant. Most passed away with very few knowing of their incredible talent. There is this thought that when the old generation passes, it is gone for good. This is very much the case with the blues. Many ardent blues enthusiasts thought that when Son House and Mississippi John Hurt passed that it was all gone – no one had told them about the many authentic blues talents that still existed but were shadowed by poverty and geography.
When I started researching the blues in North Carolina in the early 1990s, there were only a handful of musicians that were known and it was presumed all the genuine blues artists in the state were gone. Within a year I had met approximately 20 great blues artists. This really changed my opinion on things, and since that time I have met literally hundreds of incredible roots musicians. If I had unlimited funds, Music Maker could be locating and documenting hundreds of artists each year. You see, musicians pass away but music and culture do not. There is always a member of a community that holds onto the archaic traditions, and their generations’ modern traditions age and become folk traditions. Remember that blues and jazz is relatively new music that was born in the early 1900s. Sam Cooke songs of the early 1960s are now part of our folk music culture.
But – which musician is a bearer of tradition and who is not? I spent years studying under ethnomusicoligsts and folklorists and heard many opinions directly from Alan Lomax, Archie Greene and Mike Seeger, the legends of folk recording. So, through the years I have developed my own sense and opinion on this matter. But that’s another story.
As an Art Agency first and foremost, we are limited on how many artists we can work with, but at this time we have many artists that are retired and still in need of assistance and whom we still document, many artists that perform locally or tour and many more artists that we are working to begin partnering with – we call these “Discovery Artists.”
My radar is always searching for new artists, and beginning work with them is an involved process.
Willie James is among the greatest juke joint drummers alive; he spent his career playing behind Willie King of Alabama. Music Maker has been helping Willie James with funds for heat and other sustenance grants. We are trying to figure out how best to work with him in more depth and how we can best benefit him at this point in his career. So, Willie is in the “discovery” process. Once we determine how best to work with an artist and begin a partnership with them, they are a “partner artist” in our office jargon.
For all the years, I have known him, we still do not have a great photo of Willie James, or a bio, and we have not spent much time with him at his home in Pickens County, Alabama. The long drive, limited time and limited funds has meant that working with Willie is a slower process than with some artists. When Aaron and I went down to see Adolphus, we had planned to see Willie King, as well, but after seeing our friend in such a bad way, we had to get home to help figure out how to assist with the funeral.
Willie just called today, as he usually calls when the cold comes in and he needs some help with heat. He was excited as he met up with two old friends he has known since childhood that play bass and guitar, and they are working up a group. So, in the near future Aaron and I have plans to head down to Alabama. We will spend time with Willie, learn of his situation, hear more of his music and start figuring out what we can do together.
This will be a long process, and I am looking forward to helping one of nation’s greatest juke blues drummers. And after that, I’m excited to meet new roots musicians across the country who need our help and who have great talent to share with the world. And so Music Maker continues on – after twenty years I am delighted to tell anyone who asks me if my work is over, “no, we have a lot of work to do yet.“
— Tim Duffy