Getting the Blues out of the Red

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, January/February 2005

Tim Duffy ’91 (MA) treasures the times he stood with friends in the cheese line, waiting with them for their food rations. “It’s raining,” Duffy recalled from his log-cabin recording studio in rural Hillsborough, “and you’re standing in line with all of your friends, you know, waiting for their cheese. I used to love that.”

Duffy’s friends were the bluesmen and women he met while a graduate student in folklore. Duffy, who had a work-study job at the Southern Folklife Collection, proved to be a useless cataloguer because he could not type. Instead he was sent where he most wanted to be – in the field, meeting and listening to local blues artists. He came back with a better understanding of “the beauty of human nature.”

Those friends often needed help getting by, and Duffy offered it with his 1972 Ford van. He’d pick up seven or eight of the most talented, influential and completely unknown musicians in the state, take them to get their Social Security checks cashed, to get their groceries, to pay their electric bills.

“That’s when I really learned how people without much have to make decisions,” Duffy said of the artists he met, who were living, without complaint, on no more than $5,000 a year. “What you learn is an incredible faith in the unseen world. To be living in such extreme poverty, and doing so with diabetes, and not letting that bother them …”

Those years were also when he decided to begin a one-of-a-kind nonprofit to help blues musicians who’d never had a record deal or fame and never pursued either. In many ways, his 11-year-old Music Maker Relief Foundation, which now provides nearly 100 artists from Las Vegas to Florida with monthly stipends to help pay their bills and meet their health-care needs, was Duffy’s destiny – a socially conscious and musically obsessed boy’s way of repaying the humble artists who unknowingly had brought so much joy to his childhood.

Duffy grew up in Woodbridge, Conn., listening to his lawyer-father’s country and folk music collection, learning the stylings of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and the esoteric sound of Peruvian pipe music with such expertise that, by the time he was 12, “I was very well-versed in vernacular music.”

His father gave him his first guitar at 16, and at 18, he began an unorthodox educational journey that took him from the experimental Warren Wilson Co llege in Asheville to an alternative school in Kenya, where he studied Swahili music and learned about poverty.

But it wasn’t until he reached UNC that he unearthed that hidden country blues scene in North Carolina, a scene characterized not by stars but by otherwise ordinary people such as Etta Baker of Morganton and Luther “Captain Luke” Meyer of Winston-Salem. Like all the other artists Duffy met, Baker and Meyer had worked in hosiery mills and bakery plants during the week and kept the music their mothers and fathers had taught them alive on the weekends, playing just for fun at local clubs.

In their music, Duffy heard the foundation for every song he’d ever loved.

“There’s not a world-popular music that is unaffected by the music that was created here in the South,” Duffy explained. “This is the Holy Grail. And it’s still, at its root, performed by the working-class African-American, playing in places where most people don’t go to listen, where people don’t try to market a lot of things to. But there are these people there, playing this great music that has made billions of dollars for other folks. You hear Kid Rock, and you know that music had to come from somewhere.”

Duffy, with help from his wife, Denise, and a small staff of interns, does more than provide the artists with monetary help ranging from $200 to $5,000 a month, which comes mainly from individual donations or in-kind gifts. Duffy works to get them free or discounted prescription drugs, arranges blues festivals around the world at which they perform and helps them record their own CDs to supplement their income at gigs.

Many of those recordings also are now on file at the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC. Through the years, Music Maker has benefited by exposure from artists such as Eric Clapton. Taj Mahal sits on its board of directors, and the advisory board includes B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt.

Duffy’s home studio includes a humble visitor’s living quarters where artists can stay to concentrate on their music. But soon, through a $75,000 federal community development grant that Duffy has applied for, Music Maker may be able to build a permanent home in Durham away from Duffy’s home, a place for artists to meet and learn from each other, and for the public to finally meet the architects of popular music.

“I’ve found, studying folklore, that a lot of people want to believe in the myth that culture dies, and it’s all gone,” Duffy said. “And it’s very romantic to believe that it’s all gone. But music doesn’t get old. People get old. Music floats around in the universe and in the air, and it’s caught by someone else.”

Copyright 2005 UNC General Alumni Association