Music Makers Relief Foundation suffers during coronavirus

Macavine Hayes of Winston-Salem.

Many things can be found in music: hope, relaxation, inspiration and solace, to name a few. Many things can also be placed in music: history, stories, culture, hope, inspiration and solace, to name a few.

Timothy Duffy has placed the last 25 years of his life into preserving the lives and works of southeastern musicians who placed much of their own history into their music. Duffy is founder and executive director of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit based in Hillsborough. The organization’s mission is to save the musical traditions of the South by offering support to the music makers, many of whom live in poverty.

“We’re dedicated to helping the pioneers of Southern musical traditions,” Duffy said. “So much of the music that’s interesting in the world — popular music — is music that was created in the American South through the experience of things that happened here. The African-American community was brought here in chains, and the poor whites and the whole experience gave birth to the greatest gospel music that is very much alive in African-America music today. It’s blues, Old Time and jazz and a lot of these musicians that we serve. During slavery times, the white ruling class banned drums, they banned congregations, banned everything of the African-American culture. So they wouldn’t be a threat. 

“But in the mix of that horrible time, they came up with some of the most beautiful music in the world. What are the choices they had? To be utterly miserable, or to be free spiritually. And in these communities throughout the South, there’s always someone in the generation that looks back and holds on to things that were taught by an old cousin, or an old uncle — and carries it forward. Then the tradition changes,” Duffy said. 

The Music Maker Relief Foundation offers three programs to aid the lives of the musicians it serves: education, performance and sustenance. Each program builds on the other. Scheduled performances and exhibits widen the audience of the artists, broadening the opportunities to educate music and history lovers. Revenue from the shows provides much needed funding for the artists to help them with basic living expenses.

“It’s huge. To some it’s so much,” Duffy said. “We concentrate on helping these communities in small southern towns throughout North Carolina, Georgia, all the way down to Louisiana, Texas — all of these great artists in the small communities. Most of them aren’t touring artists. They work life as plumbers, as electricians and played their music on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday in the church. A few have been touring artists that have we have worked with, and some are very well-known. Often the artists are living on less than $12,000/year. And that includes rent, food, transportation, medicine.”

The nonprofit, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, has helped more than 500 musicians and provided more than 13,000 grants.

“We have a social worker on staff who does assessments to find out where people are,” Duffy said. “We find more details and often these people are food insecure. Or prescription insecure. They don’t have money for the copayment. So, micro-grants of $100/month can greatly change their lifestyle. And that’s what we do through our sustenance program. There’s the performance program, which is us taking musicians that are able to travel and go perform. And we take artists all over the world. To festivals everywhere. These people love to perform.” 

But, as is the case with everything everywhere lately, the coronavirus is wiping out scheduled performances.

“That’s a problem right now. Everything’s being cancelled. Last year, we had booked more than 500 individual performances. That directly affects the education side. We feel if we don’t educate the world about these people, they won’t care or know and we won’t sustain our great American tradition.”

COVID-19 has created economic nightmares for millions in the U.S. But there’s a particular frailty to the artists the Music Makers Relief Foundation is seeking to help.

“All our artists are elderly and that makes them extremely vulnerable to this coronavirus,” Duffy said. “Most are in their upper 70s and in their 80s, with diabetes. Most of them that had booked performances have lost all of their shows for the foreseeable future. We can see people saying ‘we’re going to come back in the Fall,’ but when we talk to booking agents, this might not come back for us until next year. Hopefully. The harsh reality of this situation is that many of these artists were already in crisis situations given that they’re so marginalized.

“These musicians have no wherewithal to horde food. They barely have enough. They skips meals. Everyone thinks poverty is just poverty, but folks survive in poverty because they’re smart,” he said.

The Music Makers Relief Foundation operates with a staff of seven. As a result of the cancellations because of the coronavirus, the nonprofit has pivoted and adjusted its primary goal. 

“Now, we just want to ensure that our partner artists are safe and informed,” Duffy said. “We’re doing grocery deliveries, emergency grants are being dispersed to make up for lost gig revenue. We’re making sure they know the CDC guidelines. And as a nonprofit, things are definitely hectic. We’ve been around for 25 years and featured in the national spotlight many times. We’re confident that the public will continue to support us to help these important musicians for years to come. We have to have that faith.”

It can be hard to imagine keeping faith and an optimistic outlook in an already dire living situation. But Duffy said the musicians and their music never ceases to amaze him.

“Well, we were talking to Pat Mother Blues — a singer who lives in North Carolina near Concord,” he said, “and she lost her house in the Lower 9th Ward during Hurricane Katrina. That tore her up. It took her years to get over it. A few years later, her house burned up in a fire. And now this. But she’s taking precautions and keeping her spirits up.” 

Duffy, who is himself a guitarist, has recently directed more of his creative energy on photography. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and spent several years living in Kenya. He developed a passion for African- American music and culture. Duffy later met a guitar player in Greensboro named Guitar Slim.  

“I met hundreds of blues artists during the ‘90s,” Duffy said. “There’s a musician from Winston-Salem I met — Guitar Gabriel — who was an absolute genius. We started gigging throughout the world, at Lincoln Center and Cargegie Hall. He introduced me to a host of musicians in Winston-Salem. I soon realized the music business never worked for these artists. Touring never worked for these artists. So, I came up with the idea for the Music Maker Relief Foundation to gain support for them. I have had many musicians support us, some very famous, like Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, but most support has come from CEOs of industries who invested and taught us how to fundraise and make an organization structure.”

Duffy continues to find inspiration from the musicians he meets and the art they create.

“I sort of fell into an eastern Carolina a gospel tradition called Sacred Soul,” Duffy said. “I’ve been bumming around eastern Carolina since 1981. If you go to that part of the state, where there are some of the poorest towns in the nation, there are these African- American gospel groups, or Sacred Soul groups. We recorded 15 of them in five days. It’s so upbeat. Most of the people and artists we support are deeply religious. And they’re very, very positive. Always looking for the best. So it’s uplifting hanging around those true believers. They’re being smart, but they’re scared. They’re looking for the stuff they need. Their spirits are very uplifting. And that’s why these people are so important to our country. Their messages in times of crisis are so special. They came up with the songs, like “Amazing Grace,” probably the greatest song ever written. Or “We Shall Overcome.” Or great blues songs. That’s why these songs are so important. In the times of need, these are the people we turn to, and their inspiration and their joy. And what they deliver, musically, to the world.”

Duffy said Music Makers keeps daily contact with many of the artists. The nonprofit is assessing how to proceed and looking for new ways to tell the stories of the musicians.

“We have an exhibition in a museum of Freeman Vines and his hanging guitars in Greenville,” he said. “We’re going to work hard to get that exhibit going, but right now we don’t even know if that museum will be open or not. We’re such a small organization, it doesn’t take a huge amount of money to keep us going. We just have to lean into it and see what happens.”

So, as much of the nation deals with a crisis by sheltering in place, millions of people will turn to the works of artists to help them cope with a life of suddenly limited travel and other effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps it’s not too optimistic to hope the sudden abundance of time will allow the Music Makers Relief Foundation and the musicians and music it represents to grow its audience.

“We have survived by helping people,” Duffy said. “In times of crisis, it’s not time to contract. It’s time to reach out and help your fellow man. We all can go up, or we all can go down. So why not try to go up?”