Academic journal article Notes

Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America

Academic journal article Notes

Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America

Article excerpt

Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America. Edited by Timothy Dviffy. Foreword by B. B. King. Athens, GA: Hill Street Press, 2002. [xiii, 194 p. ISBN 1-58818-085-9. $35.] Illustrations, compact disc.

This book profiles the lives and music of sixty-six current or recent performers of blues and closely related types of folk and popular music. Most are from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, and almost all are African American and elderly (some now deceased). Each ariisl gets two or more pages, containing one or more photographs, a brief biographical blurb, and some song lyrics and an interview excerpt or both. A compact disc, bound in the back cover, features the music of some of these performers on twenty-two tracks.

This package serves as an advertisement for and summary of the work of the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF), which was established by editor Timothy Duffy in 1994. The Foundation's purpose is "to help the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs" (p. 4). These needs include life maintenance, instrument acquisition, tour support, and emergency relief. The Foundation also sponsors concerts and tours, visiting artist programs, and produces a series of compact discs. The MMRF received help from many small contributors and one major anonymous benefactor. Various celebrities and music industry movers and shakers came on board, and for a time Winston cigarettes served as a sponsor.

Duffy began his work in 1989 when he befriended James "Guitar Slim" Stephens in Greensboro, North Garolina, during the last year of his life. Then Duffy moved on to Guitar Gabriel and the world of "drink houses"-informal neighborhood establishments where beer is sold and consumed. Musicians would often hang out at these houses. Duffy played guitar with Gabriel and eventually helped him to get some prestigious concerts. Frustrated with the then current blues record and concert scene, lie began helping other artists and eventually founded the MMRF, getting it off the ground by appealing initially to the audiophile community.

Duffy is to be congratulated for the MMRF's charitable and promotional work and for being one of the very few people still doing broad based and ongoing field research in this type of folk music. The book certainly succeeds in describing and promoting his and the Foundation's work. As a survey of the current state of folk blues, however, it is inadequate and artistically somewhat disappointing. The problem is not only the brevity and superficiality of each artist profile but, to some degree, the very premise of the Foundation's work. In the introduction, Duffy states that "this book introduces a new cast of artists to dispel the notion that the most real and rooted blues no longer exists" (p. 12), and the dust jacket claims that "these artists had been either ignored or abused by mainstream record labels and music media and were living in poverty and artistic neglect as a result." In the 1960s and 1970s, when much more of this sort of documentation was going on, these notions had a certain degree of validity, but a full generation later they have become questionable. Most of the folklorically and artistically interesting musicians profiled here are holdovers from the fieldwork of earlier researchers several decades ago and are thus not "a new cast of artists" (e.g., Etta Baker, Precious Bryant, James Davis, Frank Edwards, Cora Fluker, Preston FuIp, Big Boy Henry, Algia Mae Hinton, John Dee Holeman, "Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain, Jack Owens, Neal Pattman, Eugene Powell, James "Guitar Slim" Stephens, Robert Thomas, Othar Turner, J. W. Warren, Jimmie Lee Williams, and John Lee Zeigler). Others had been on the blues scene for some years and already had modest or even substantial careers (e. …

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