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.

Taj Mahal – Labor of Love

taj-mahal-for-chad-kassem-18            The blues live on because the blues give people life, not the other way around. Talk about the blues with Taj Mahal or Tim Duffy—founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation—and you will quickly understand how deeply they grasp this. Both men are devoted to tradition, but not a museum kind of tradition. They’re devoted to living tradition; tradition that is not only “viable and vital”—as Taj puts it—but tradition that is life-giving and life-sustaining.

When Tim recounts his first experiences hearing Taj play live in the early 1980s, he describes a performer who rumbled with the echoes of ancestors and forefathers as he created a sound that was completely relevant in the present moment. Taj was not a revivalist. He was a medium for the blues’ reviving power.

Tim and Taj first connected in the mid-1990s. Tim, just getting the Music Maker Relief Foundation off the ground, had released A Living Past, a book and CD set featuring artists he was working with. When this collection found its way to Taj, it stopped him dead in his tracks. For a long time, he had nurtured a belief that there were musicians out there playing traditional blues with life and vigor; musicians who didn’t simply remember the music, but who got life from it. And here they were. Taj describes hearing their music as “deeply personal,” something that illuminated things about his own musical roots he had intuited before but now came to understand more fully. Taj was also was fascinated by Tim. Unlike so many folklorists of the past, Tim seemed to understand that preserving tradition did not simply mean sticking photographs and recordings into an archive. Preserving tradition was “all about taking loving care of these older artists.”

Taj brought Tim out to L.A. and introduced him and his new foundation to folks like B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. Tim invited Taj to his place in rural Pinnacle, North Carolina where the celebrated musician slept on a palette on the floor and hung out with several Music Maker artists. He loved how they played and sang, but he especially loved “getting to know their lives and how they made things work.”


Taj says he wanted to “give whatever [he] had” to Tim’s foundation, and he figured maybe his name had “some kind of cachet.” Things fell into place, including a sponsorship from Winston cigarettes, and in 1998 a group of Music Maker artists set off on a mammoth 42-city tour with Taj as the headliner. Talk to anyone who was involved and it’s immediately clear that this was a special time. Artists who had spent the previous decades playing in drink houses and juke joints were lighting up audiences on high-profile stages across the country, rising to ever higher heights. The bigger the show, the better they played.

Listen to’s exclusive stream of Labor of Love HERE

Taj was tearing it up too, of course. But he was also soaking it in. He was hanging out with artists like Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. He was listening to them and learning from them. And he was reconnecting to music he had been hearing and playing since he was a kid. But now he was grasping it in a new way, going “deeper.” Nothing was drastically different, he says, it just felt like he was getting “closer to the source.”


Tim—sensing the incredibly rich musical possibilities in the air—hoped to catch something on tape. In addition to shepherding a motley assemblage of senior citizen bluesmen and women through a never-ending series of unfamiliar cities and settings, Tim was lugging around high-end recording equipment that he had recently acquired from the legendary audio wizard Mark Levinson. He set it up in hotel rooms in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas—wherever—hoping he could get Taj to do an impromptu session. But it never seemed to work out.

Then one night in Houston, the daughter of Katie Mae was hanging around—the Katie Mae, the woman immortalized in the Lightnin’ Hopkins classic “Katie Mae Blues.” Hopkins, with his highly-original cut-to-the bone poetry and raw elegance, is an Olympian figure of the blues, and Taj, being steeped in the blues’ American mythology, couldn’t miss the chance to meet this woman face-to-face. So, a few bluesmen and Tim and Taj and Katie Mae’s daughter hung out together in this Houston hotel room. After a while, Taj picked up an acoustic and started whipping out classic tunes—“Stack-O-Lee,” “Walking Blues,” “Fishing Blues”—merging his reinvigorated feeling for tradition with his inimitable personal style. The tape was rolling.

Around the time of the Winston tour, Taj often visited North Carolina, first coming to Pinnacle and later to Music Maker’s new headquarters in Hillsborough. Tim had “tapped into a full-on living scene,” Taj says, and he was reeling with a sense of incredible good fortune that he was getting to be a part of it. He regularly sat in on recording sessions (usually long hang-out-and-barbecue sessions with some recording thrown in). When the music got going, Taj would play some piano, bass, harp, banjo, mandolin, whatever was needed. “It was fun. Really fun to get to use all my chops like that,” Taj says, “but I never got in just because I could. If I didn’t have something to say, I shut up.” He overflows with feeling when he talks about playing with these folks; singular artists like John Dee Holeman, Cool John Ferguson, Cootie Stark, and Algia Mae Hinton.

Tim loved the sounds that were getting recorded. The players were letting loose, digging in, coming alive as the music came through them. This was it, that place where tradition becomes “viable and vital” in the present. He wanted to put this stuff out—these North Carolina sessions and the Houston hotel recordings. But the time wasn’t right. Taj had just released a string of great studio albums with a throwback R&B flavor, and there was a new 3-disc retrospective of his work on the market. There really wasn’t any commercial space for Taj Mahal versions of “Hambone” and “Shortin’ Bread.” So the recordings just sat around.

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For about two decades now, Taj and Tim have nurtured their friendship and partnership. They have incredibly nice things to say about each other. Both men credit the other with enriching their respective life, career, and musical journey. Tim says that, “having Taj Mahal be a champion for Music Maker has been one of the greatest joys of my life.” He goes on, “Without Taj, Music Maker would not be what it is, it would be something else; something different.” Taj’s spirit, it seems, infuses the whole enterprise.

In 2015, Tim’s foundation turned 21 years old, and Taj, born in 1942, was settling into his eighth decade of life. Both men were looking back and reflecting. They returned to these recordings made during that magical time in the late 1990s. In them they heard what Albert Murray, the great African American cultural critic, claimed to be the essence of blues style, “a unique blend of warmth, sensitivity, nonsense, vitality, and elegance.” These tracks needed to be heard. Taj wanted to do a vinyl-only release and Tim thought that “was really groovy.”

So here they are, on a piece of solid wax. Comb through all the dozens of Taj Mahal albums released in the last few decades and you won’t find a more intimate portrayal of his stripped-down traditional blues style, nor a better representation of Taj as a freewheeling, fun-loving, always in-the-pocket sideman. “When I listen to this,” Tim says, “it just shows how good the music really is. His version of ‘Shortin’ Bread’ with Neal Pattman is, you know, it’s just amazing. It’s as good as anything that was on wax in the 20s and 30s.” And it is, precisely because you don’t get any sense that Taj was trying to recreate some old record. He just sounds like he’s having fun. The album might be a Labor of Love (and the labor is there, no doubt), but when the needle hits the grooves, what really comes across is the love: the love of the budding friendship between Taj and Tim; the love of the blues; the loving care that is the essence of real preservation; and, especially, the love of being in the moment, playing, creating a sound that gives you life. I asked Taj what he wanted the record to say to people. “Hrmmh,” he grunted, diverting attention from my too-serious question, “just enjoy it.”


— Will Boone



Diggin’: Harvey Dalton Arnold – Cold & Lonesome

“Cold & Lonesome,” a hit for venerable Southern Rock pioneers, The Outlaws, is here performed by its writer, Harvey Dalton Arnold. Just Harvey, a guitar and a slide. When you talked about cold and lonesome feelings, there is no better way. He weeps for bouncing from one woman to another, night after night and never getting tied down to the right one, and the guitar cries back. This was recorded back a few years ago for Harvey’s first solo acoustic record. One of my favorites!

Artist Spotlight: Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen

olp_lowres-11The blues call us to face the reality of mistreatment. Blues songs are full of people doing one another wrong—mistreatment from lovers, strangers, systemic structures, and, of course, from oneself. But by calling it out and making it plain—we humans don’t treat one another right—the blues exert an opposing force. They help us glimpse the world that we’d like to live in, one where people do right by themselves and their sisters and brothers.

At least that’s how I feel when I listen to Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen. Certainly, Cohen has seen her share of mistreatment. She’s completely open about what she’s been through—sexual assault as a young woman, being fired under false pretenses, being displaced by Katrina, losing her house to fire. “It’s just life,” she says. “And if you can’t keep it real, if you can’t tell the truth about yourself, what can you tell the truth about?” She tells the truth when she sings, too. There’s nothing sad about her blues, nothing weepy or self-pitying. With the confidence and regality of blues pioneers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Cohen’s voice conveys the message, “yeah, the mistreatment is real, but it’s never going to stop me.”

Cohen’s blues, full of power and resilience, are the kind that fill you up and make you feel good. She loves to make her audience happy. “It makes me happy to make other people happy,” she says, “It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. I give it. It comes back. I give it. It comes back.” This kind of reciprocity is something Cohen talks about a lot. She calls it “planting seeds,” and she sees everything she does as an opportunity to plant seeds. She sings regularly at nursing homes in her area, for example. “I do all songs that they know, or things that I’ve handpicked just for them,” she explains,

And the people really appreciate it, because folks in these nursing homes, they don’t get the opportunity to hear really good music that often. And someone asked me, ‘Why are you doing that if they’re not paying you?’ And I said they are paying me. Maybe not with money, but they’re paying me. Because I leave out of there some days so filled up; so full, you understand? I’ll come out of there so full that the tears are just coming out of my eyes.

Before Hurricane Katrina, she would draw huge crowds in New Orleans clubs and was often called “The Queen of Bourbon Street.” She lived in the Ninth Ward, though, and lost everything in the 2005 storm. She was displaced to North Carolina where she had two brothers. “A lot of people don’t really understand what the word displaced is all about,” she says,

It’s being somewhere where you are totally out of sorts. Like they dropped you off in outer space. You don’t know anything. You don’t know where the stores are. You don’t know where you’re going to live. You don’t anybody in your town. You don’t know musicians, or where you’re going to play. You don’t know anything.

Eventually, she hooked up with Big Ron Hunter at a club in Winston Salem and he introduced her to Tim Duffy. Music Maker has been able to help her find gigs and even sent her to Europe and Australia with the Music Maker Revue. Still, she’s remained intimately acquainted with the struggles that so many musicians face. “This has not been the easiest life,” she muses, “It’s almost like when you devote yourself to being an artist, you take a vow of poverty. Like a monk.” The Music Maker Sustenance Program has pitched in to help Cohen with things like getting heat in her home and a vehicle to make it to gigs. Music Maker also helped offset the costs when she recently lost her house to fire. “Most of my life,” Cohen says, “I never had to ask anybody for anything, I’ve always made it myself. But sometimes, things happen where you could use a helping hand. And it is nice to know that there is somebody out there looking out for you.”

Cohen keeps a quote on her mirror that reads, in part, “Life is 10% of what happens to us and 90% of how we respond to it. The single most significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my choice of attitude.” She reads it every morning and sets out to live by it. And I hear it when she sings the blues. She’s responding to a harsh world by exerting an opposing force. This is how the best blues work, I’ve always thought. By telling the truth about how people treat each other, they make us want to do better.

Music Maker nurtures of a community—Pat Cohen calls it a “family”—of great artists who tell these truths. And in the same way that the blues exert a counterforce to mistreatment, every contribution to Music Maker exerts a counterforce to the struggle that so many artists have endured for so long. “I really and truly, truly appreciate Music Maker,” Pat Cohen says, “To me, they’re like family. And the artists in Music Maker, we’re like a family. It’s a community and it’s a family, and I’m proud to be a part of it.” She goes on, “and for those that contribute to Music Maker, I want them to know, they’re not just contributing to a foundation, they’re contributing to people’s lives.” To return to Cohen’s favorite metaphor, every contribution is a seed. Together these seeds grow into a bountiful harvest that we all reap.

— Will Boone

Support Musicians Like Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen TODAY!

Diggin’: Cool John Ferguson – Come All Ye Faithful

Everyone has a favorite holiday song, Come All Ye Faithful is mine. You won’t hear an elaborate symphony or full chorus on this version by Cool John Ferguson – just one guy, his guitar, and a simple, peaceful melody. Cozy up and enjoy!

Also, if you have not finished your holiday shopping check out our Captain Luke T-Shirt or consider making a gift in your loved one’s honor.

Albert White and the Soul of the Blues


I had the pleasure of meeting Albert over the summer when he came up from Atlanta to play at the Freight Train Blues series in Carrboro, NC. Albert and some other artists had just arrived from Atlanta, and we took them to have lunch at Waffle House, somewhat of a Music Maker tradition. I sensed right away that Albert was a kind and gentle soul. Later, at the show, I realized that he was also one incredible musician.


Albert will be turning 74 this December, and has been performing the Blues for over 50 years. He got his start in high school, influenced by his Uncle, Piano Red, who was one of the great pioneers of R&B. Albert would drive his uncle around the country for his shows, playing guitar along the way.


After his uncle passed Albert found work at a warehouse, but still continued to perform every weekend in Atlanta. He is retired now, and lives in a small working class home that he once shared with his wife, who has now passed away.


Albert has been part of the Music Maker family since 2000, touring with the Blues Revue as a guitarist and backing up dozens of Music Maker artists with his incredible rhythm guitar playing. Once a younger member of the family, Albert is now an elder. He is losing eyesight in one eye due to glaucoma, his hips are giving out, yet he still gets out there to play gigs. His love for music keeps him pushing forward.


Like many of our aging artists, Albert receives monthly support through our Musician Sustenance Program to help cover expenses for his increased medical needs. Over the years, we have also provided him with guitars and a replacement laptop in order to stay connected despite his more limited mobility.


Albert is a gentleman, a man of class and distinction, and an amazing Blues artist. Music Maker will continue to ensure that his needs are met, so that he may live in comfort and remain an active, vital member of the Music Maker family.


Learn more about our Musician Sustenance Program here, or make your tax deductible contribution – here and help amazing artists like Albert White


Diggin’: Big Boy Henry – Old Bill

This tale of senseless sacrifice reveals the world through a child’s eyes. While still an innocent child, the irony of the “holy kiss” is not lost on this boy who must give up his best friend for a corrupt opportunist. What’s for dinner tonight?

For our Listener’s Circle this month members got exclusive access to an unreleased album from Big Boy Henry! Don’t miss out, sign up today and support our roots – here.

Diggin’: Guitar Lightnin’ Lee – Missing Mama

You take one look at Guitar Lightnin’ Lee and immediately get the impression that this is one of the meanest dudes on the planet. His stocky frame and rock and roll get up lead you to this assumption, but the reality is that Lee is about one of the sweetest guys you could ever meet. This tune represents Lee’s softer side, a heartfelt love song to his mama and the universal feeling of homesickness. This one is for all the mothers!


— Corn Lewis

Diggin’: George Higgs – One Kind Favor

George Higgs is one of the lesser known artists that Music Maker has partnered with. That doesn’t mean that George wasn’t an amazing artist though. His dark slide guitar and haunting voice on One Kind Favor makes for an incredibly deep Blues song. George passed away in January of 2013, he was from outside Speed, NC – a slow town with a fast name.


— Corn Lewis

Lonnie Holley: In the Grip of Power

Yesterday our good friend Lonnie Holley came to visit the MM office to say hello. Lonnie is an amazing artist based out of Atlanta, GA. During his visit he showed us his latest video, focused on a new art piece. The piece is titled In the Grip of Power and symbolizes the struggle minorities have had with the voting process.

This struggle is deep and has been had by many Music Maker artists. Sit with any of them and they will tell you how difficult it has been to be involved with the political process.


Diggin’: Cary Morin – Sing It Louder

Cary Morin is one of the most amazing guitar players I have ever seen play the instrument and his songwriting is matches his playing ability. Sing It Louder is all about love, unity, and bringing people together through song. Whenever I get down and out I always just put this song on and listen as my anxiety drifts away. “Sing It Louder and believe!”

— Corn Lewis

Robert Finley Rocks Out in Memphis!


Robert Finley arrived like it was any other night, excited, grinning from ear to ear, guitar in hand. He wore pressed jeans, cowboy hat and boots and a Western shirt accented by a belt buckle larger than my hands. He looked like he was ready for the rodeo.

Instead of herding cattle, he was wrangling an audience. It didn’t matter that most had never seen him before, he knew exactly how to grab them. Being mostly blind, his swagger was stifled by Music Maker’s producer and long time musical director Ardie Dean, helping him on stage. But when he made it to center stage, he transformed into a bull on parade. Within moments of the band striking up and him lighting into the first lines of the song, the crowd leapt from their chairs and filled the dance floor. It was on!

Finley led the band through the 9 songs from the record and a few special numbers he worked up with them the day before. Though the band and Finley were playing live together as a unit for the first time, these were the cats who pulled his record together, some of the most revered Memphis session musicians, and they revealed no handicaps. They were tight and hot!

The excitement from the stage and in the crowd grew from set to set. When Finley remarked that he wasn’t gonna stop until the cops came, the crowd cheered with glee. When he said he was gonna share something special that even his producer wouldn’t let him put on the album, the crowd got even more excited.
By the time he wrapped up the show, we were all undone. He stood by the merch table as members of the audience vied for an opportunity to shake his hand.
— Aaron Greenhood

Diggin’: Beverly “Guitar” Watkins – Miz Dr. Feelgood

Nobody can tear the house down like Beverly. If you ever been lucky enough to see her play you know how it feels to have your socks blown off by one of the most impressive performers in music today! AND she’s old enough to be your grandma. Miz Dr. Feelgood is a classic electric blues number with rocking piano and ripping electric guitar with Beverly’s growling voice leading the way. Sit back and listen to this one and think about what it would be like to see Beverly shredding this tune with a guitar behind her head.


— Corn Lewis



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February 2017
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