The goal of the Music Maker Relief
Foundation is pretty simple: provide indigenous artists with what they
need to make music ó and to survive doing it. Since 1994, Tim Duffy
has been doing exactly that for several musicians in North Carolina,
where Duffy and the MMRF are based. Cello Records got into the act when
Duffy, then a folklorist and musician from Connecticut, was headed out
on a recording trip and called audio equipment svengali Mark Levinson
for advice on what to use when recording.
Levinson, founder of Cello Music
and Film Systems, was so moved by what Duffy played for him that he
offered to outfit Duffy with $50,000 worth of high-end equipment and
remaster his extensive and impressive back catalog.
So was born the partnership of Cello
Records and the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Six years later, Duffy
and Levinson have helped raise close to half a million dollars for the
various artists Duffy has recorded. That financial assistance isnít
fed into your typical promotion and tour budget coffers: It goes to
more important things ó like food, instruments, and medical bills to
help the artists get by.
The foundation has succeeded in
keeping its operational costs under 25% of the total income. Theyíve
also suceeded in releasing a handful of titles that have allowed contemporary
listeners to hear some great musicians. Three of those players, Etta
Baker, Algia Mae Hinton and John Dee Holeman, have helped Cello and
MMRF boost its catalog and move from its underground status to a better-known
ó and appreciated ó position.
Etta Baker is known as the premiere
female Piedmont blues guitar player whose only true contemporary was
the great Elizabeth Cotten. Played daily for over 80 years, Bakerís
music is a purely authentic representation of the indigenous style of
her region. Celloís two-microphone recording system captures Bakerís
full-bodied, finger-picked, acoustic guitar playing in amazing textural
Part of the charm of Bakerís music
develops from her love of the outdoors. Sheís an avid gardener and keeps
a beautiful yard at her Morganton, North Carolina, home where these
recordings were made. That connection with her surroundings, and nature,
comes through in the dynamics of her playing. Thereís a peaceful wholeness
that drapes over the listener and relaxes the soul. And she does it
all without singing a word.
The opening track ó "Carolina
Breakdown" ó has bass notes that roll along uninterrupted by her
various flourishes and patterns so cleanly picked on the high strings.
Itís bright, beautiful music that conveys a lazy Sunday afternoon on
a porch swing, appropriately augmented by the sound of a passing finch.
The birdís unscheduled visit results in a natural-sounding, beautifully
The mood might dip slightly on standards
like "Railroad Bill" and an almost dirge-like "Careless
Love," but the wholesome feel never leaves Bakerís playing. "John
Henry" is a duet with Tim Duffy, who adds a slicing, jangly slide
Bakerís original material returns
the set to a more up-tempo mood. "Sunny Tennessee" certainly
rouses the brightness of its title, and "Miss a Little Miss"
has the polite, romantic edge of a courting song. Bakerís finale is
"Cripple Creek," where she dazzles with some truly excellent
Algia Mae Hinton is not quite the
smooth instrumentalist as Etta Baker, but her edgy playing (on mostly
acoustic guitar) and no-frills vocals make her music especially characteristic.
Her songs on Honey Babe also depict the true oral folk tradition
Algia Mae learned many of her songs
from family members ó aunts, brothers, her mother ó and even from an
old boyfriend. A lot of them were written by the person who taught her
how play it. Within each one lies a story of life experiences, hardships
"What You Gonna Do When Your
Good Girl Turns You Down?" isnít just a melodramatic tale: Thereís
a tone in it that suggests the lyricís answer (throwing yourself in
the river) was a very real option. "Out of Jail" spares nothing
in its plea either ó itís a harsh, honest song of hope for a change
in oneís fortune. "My Babyís Gone" and "Cook Cornbread
for Your Husband" follow similarly. Hinton didnít pick all this
up from relatives and observance alone either: Sheís lived a few of
these stories herself.
Algia Mae Hinton worked her familyís
tobacco, cotton and cucumber fields in Johnson County, North Carolina,
from an early age. She was widowed at 36 with seven children to raise
and a farm to work. "Going Down This Road" was inspired by
the 1984 fire that burned Algia Maeís house to the ground, taking all
of her property ó including her guitars ó with it. "Thatís a sad
song. I lost everything I had that night" is Hintonís footnote
at the end of the song. "Didnít have no shoes," she adds with
a chuckle ó signifying her spirit of perseverance.
That hopeful spirit (honed also
by her strong religious faith and lifelong regard for gospel music)
is summed up in the poetry featured in the liner notes. Langston Hughesí
words are Algia Mae Hintonís blues: "They done tried to make me
stop laughiní, stop loviní, stop liviní ó but I donít care! Iím still
John Dee Holeman is not only an
accomplished blues guitar player; he runs a damn fine soul-food restaurant
in Durham, North Carolina, as well. Both occupations have made him a
locally-recognized celebrity. On Bull Durham Blues, Holeman offers
13 tracks of his blues stylings that are nicely embellished by his home-cured,
Holemanís vocals give his stories
a different feel: More of a songster, he evinces less of the intimacy
and confessional tone of Hintonís work. Holeman leans more toward entertaining
than commiserating. Heís particularly comfortable when taking on "Big
Boss Man" ó slipping into a Jimmy Reed-style delivery, dragging
his lyric over a gentle shuffling boogie and using a steel-bodied acoustic
to accent the tuneís country tinge. No matter what style heís stirring
up ó and there are plenty in his repertoire ó Holemanís expert at capturing
the common feel and adding that extra spice of homegrown seasoning.
On Otis Spannís "Little Country
Gal," the smoothed-out swing of the urban blues is roughed up by
Holemanís acoustic guitar and down-home vocal. "Early Morning Blues"
is a Muddy Waters number thatís more like Watersí early recordings than
his later Chess work. "Chapel Hill Boogie" is a Holeman original
in the classic Carolina style: its true boogie-woogie guitar matches
the bounce of standards like "Step It Up and Go" and "Crow
Jane," where Holeman leaves little doubt that he learned to play
from associates of Blind Boy Fuller.
The lazy Texas loll on Lightniní
Hopkinsí "Give Me Back My Wig" and "Hello Central"
is just as easy for Holeman. Digging for deeper roots, he does a hambone
duet with Taj Mahal on "Hambone" and benefits from Tajís beefy
bass part on "Sweet Home Chicago" and his rollicking barrelhouse
piano on the fine "Mistreated Blues."
As a creative consultant and sometimes
sessionman for the Music Maker releases, Mahal has lent quite a bit
to the foundationís cause. His presence provides these musicians the
needed bridge from their regional followings to a wider commercial audience.
With Mahalís diverse career and commitment to authentic folk music styles,
he displays an honest appreciation for the musicians. His contributions
shine as authentic and sympathetic gestures towards not only preserving
the music and helping its makers, but also as a genuine desire to spread
this musicís power to enrich other peopleís lives.
Teamed with Tim Duffyís guidance
and ability to find these wonderful musicians, and Mark Levinsonís truly
magical recording techniques (the immediacy of these recordings can
not be overstressed), the Music Maker Relief Foundation appears to have
a solid bedrock of support, publicity and near-audiophile fidelity to
propel it towards greater success and greater heights of assistance
for its widening roster of talent.
ó Jon Marko