Throughout the month of November other Blogcritics writers and myself have been reviewing and talking about Blues music. Something that's become clear from writing some of these articles, and from reading them, is the universal appeal of the Blues. Guitar players from Finland and record labels in Germany only confirms the fact, everybody does indeed get the Blues.
But no matter how far flung the Blues has become; there's no doubt in anybody's mind where its roots lie. When Thomas Ruf of Ruf records in Germany wanted to give some of his young European Blues musicians a deeper understanding of the music they played, he took them to Mississippi and Memphis to record.
They hung out and played for hours a day with the people who have lived and breathed the music and the life circumstances that created it. Ruf understood that it's one thing for these young people to play the music on a daily basis, but another altogether to experience it. In Europe they lacked the resource that would enable this, the people who've been living, breathing, performing, and creating the Blues for the past few generations.
The roots of Blues music run deep in the Southern United States, and are closely intermingled with the social history of that region. To play the Blues without an awareness of the people and the places it came from is to rob it of the very vitality that has kept it vibrant and alive long after its originators have passed on.
When Thomas Ruf took his musicians to record Pilgrimage: Mississippi To Memphis they were only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is floating hundreds if not thousands of musicians who contributed in one way or another to a little piece of the story of the Blues.
These men and women, who should be recognized for their contributions to the creation and development of American culture, have been living their lives in obscurity and, in most cases, poverty. Unfortunately, many still are. But because of the efforts of one couple, a very exiting change has taken place over the last fifteen years.
The way Tim Duffy tells the story of the Music Maker Relief Foundation it sounds like such an obvious thing to do. It makes you wonder why no one thought of it earlier. In 1990 he had met Guitar Gabriel, and they began playing together. Through Gabriel Tim began to get to know other older musicians and learned about the harsh realities of their lives.
Initially he tried to organize gigs and recording deals for these musicians in order to help them keep body and soul together. After three years of this he realized that without help he wasn't going to get anywhere. He had made some rough field recordings of many of the performers and in the end they were what started the ball rolling.
Tim had sent out a general plea for help to people who had been friends of his late father, and one of the first to respond was Mark Levinson a pioneer in the world of commercial stereo equipment. He was the one who got the ball rolling for the Music Maker Foundation by promoting an initial compilation disc through his showroom.
A chance meeting between Mark and Eric Clapton resulted in Eric's interest in the project and the initial bump that the project needed to get publicity and a small distribution deal with Tower Records. They were now able to start generating some funds and booking shows for the artists. It was only the beginning.
Now seventeen years since his fateful meeting with Guitar Gabriel (who ironically died just as the foundation began to bear fruit) The Music Maker Relief Foundation has come quite a distance. With an Advisory board that includes Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Sue Foley, and B.B. King, and Taj Mahal serving on the Board of Directors, public awareness is growing, which assures the continued growth and expansion of the programming offered by the organization.
Not only are they now able to provide grants for individuals in need of financial assistance, they are able to produce records, arrange gigs for individual artists, and promote international tours under the Music Maker banner. Slowly but surely they are not only bringing the people who made the music out of obscurity, but generating interest in some of the lesser known styles of the music as well.
There is always the danger that when some performers die that a style or type of music could vanish with them forever. Producing groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three young Black musicians who play the Country Blues of the Carolinas, ensures that music is prevented from becoming either only a memory or a dusty museum piece.
The Music Maker Relief Foundation is not just about recognizing the achievements of those who came before, or even just preserving their music like fossils in amber. Now that they have successfully started their grant program to artists in need, their next step is to ensure the music's continued vitality and bring it to new audiences everywhere.
The Chocolate drops are one step in that direction, but Tim Duffy envisions a day when the foundation has its own facilities for recording, performing, and celebrating the people who create the music. He's well aware of how fickle fad and fashion can be, so he knows it will take a permanent effort beyond what he and his wife Denise are capable of as individuals to maintain what has been started.
Not only is the music that the foundation strives to preserve important, the work of the foundation itself must be preserved beyond this one generation for it to be successful. Initially it may have been founded with the humanitarian goal of caring for those who pioneered the Blues, but it has outgrown that impulse. Now it is fast becoming a means of preserving an important aspect of the United States' cultural heritage.
With the permanent location of Tim's realized it will be possible for the music and the people who perform it to have the means to always be a part of the nation's awareness. Nevermore will they become out of sight and out of mind or risk being relegated to the scrap heap of the forgotten.
If you have even the barest of interest in the Blues and the people who were responsible for keeping it alive over the years, in all its glorious shapes and sizes, then you may want to consider a way in which you can support the efforts of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. They are one of the best and brightest hopes for keeping the Blues alive today.