Capturing The Undersung Blues People Of The Rural South

Jul 7, 2019
Originally published on July 7, 2019 5:09 am

Timothy Duffy is on a mission to document America's vernacular music — specifically, the blues — and the everyday men and women who carry on the tradition. He's the co-founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that helps struggling and aging musicians.

Duffy is also a photographer, and his new project is a collection of portraits of these musicians, who are not typically in the spotlight. It's the subject of an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art through the end of July.

Duffy's vivid black-and-white portraits, captured with an early photographic process called tintype, are also collected in the new book, Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy's Southern Photographs. The book includes a compilation album so you can hear the music behind the faces.

Over its 25-year history, Music Maker has helped more than 400 artists, most of them in the latter stages of life. The bluesman Taj Mahal is among the better-known musicians who have worked with the nonprofit to help celebrate lesser-known players.

"Both the microphone and the camera pass them by," Taj Mahal says. "A lot of the work was done by ... people who are nameless."

Music Maker does everything from booking gigs and producing records to paying bills and buying instruments.

"If you want to talk about reparations, that's what we do," Duffy says. "We write the checks. ... We're not afraid to give people cash."

One musician who has received Music Maker's support is Alabama Slim.

Milton "Alabama Slim" Frazier, 2015.
Timothy Duffy / Courtesy of Music Maker

Alabama Slim was born Milton Frazier. Long and lean at 80 years old, he picked up the blues as a boy growing up in rural Alabama. Two of his portraits appear in Blue Muse.

"It's kinda beautiful there because, actually, that's me," Slim says. He says Timothy Duffy sees things others might not pay attention to. "It seemed like he kept the serious part about me. Because my music, I'm serious about it."

Music Maker produced the The Mighty Flood, an album Slim made with his cousin, Little Freddie King. It tells the story of how they evacuated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The organization also books him on tours overseas.

"It's like a can opener prying for it to come out of there," he says about performing. "After I sing the blues and the people love it, hey, I feel good. Yea. I feel real good."

James "Boot" Hanks, 2015.
Tim Duffy / Courtesy of Music Maker

The late James "Boot" Hanks was a Piedmont blues guitarist from rural Virginia.

"He's looking dead at you; his eyes are piercing," Duffy says. "His skin looks of a hard life. But there's no animosity, and no fear, and just love."

Duffy says Hanks was an impoverished sharecropper when they met. ("Sharecropper is a code word for modern-day slave," Duffy says.) The foundation helped Hanks make his first record when he was 79 years old, and got him safe housing and performances around the world. It transformed his life.

"He played Lincoln Center, and in his community he became not that funny old guy that lives in a trailer [with] no running water, no electricity," Duffy says.


Tim Duffy took this self-portrait using his tintype photography setup.
Tim Duffy / Courtesy of Music Maker

Freeman Vines of Fountain, N.C. makes hand-carved guitars. Duffy took the picture atop this page the first day he met Vines, and was struck by the artistry that goes into Vines' instruments.

"Each of these things meant something," Duffy says.

Some of the guitars are carved from wood that people in the community say came from trees known to be used for lynchings during Jim Crow. But Vines takes it even deeper.

"He says ... 'There's graves for the white people but there's no graves for the slaves. Am I walking on my ancestors?'" Duffy says, quoting Vines. According to Duffy, everything Vines finds he considers to be from the "the blood in the root — and so everything he makes is a hanging-tree guitar."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Timothy Duffy is on a mission to document America's vernacular music, specifically the blues and the everyday men and women who create it. He's founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helps struggling and aging musicians. He's also a photographer. His new project "Blue Muse" is a collection of portraits of musicians not typically in the spotlight. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The New Orleans Museum of Art contains a French painting of Marie Antoinette, Picasso's "Woman In An Armchair" and Andy Warhol's "Mick Jagger." Now you can also see portraits of Ironing Board Sam, Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen and Alabama Slim.

TIMOTHY DUFFY: I think all these guys are heroes.

ELLIOTT: Timothy Duffy has grown to know his subjects over the 25 years he's helped run Music Maker Relief Foundation. It supports musicians with everything from buying medicine to booking gigs. Duffy's black-and-white portraits are also collected in a new book, which includes a CD, so you can hear the music behind the faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNA BOOGIE OOGIE")

JAMES "BOO" HANKS: (Singing) Well, the little, brown hen told the little, red rooster, you can't boogie like you used to. I want to boogie. Baby, I want to boogie. I want to boogie oogie all night long.

ELLIOTT: That's the late James "Boo" Hanks, a sharecropper and Piedmont Blues guitarist from Virginia. Hank's portrait is included in the New Orleans exhibition.

DUFFY: He is looking dead at you. He's holding a guitar off to his left. And his eyes are piercing. And his skin looks of a hard life, but there's no animosity and no fear and just love.

ELLIOTT: Duffy says Music Maker helped Hanks make his first record when he was 79 years old and got him performances in Europe and at New York's Lincoln Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNA BOOGIE OOGIE")

HANKS: (Singing) You have to learn how to boogie.

ELLIOTT: Duffy says the foundation has helped more than 400 artists, most of them in the latter stages of life.

DUFFY: If you want to talk about reparations, that's what we do. We write the checks. You know, the music industry has never done anything for where this music has come from, except talk about it. We're not afraid to give people cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNA BOOGIE OOGIE")

HANKS: Woo (ph).

ELLIOTT: In a neighborhood two miles from the museum, you can see the foundation's cash at work.

LEROY WILLIAMS: What's up, Slim?

ELLIOTT: Leroy Williams, aka Guitar Lightning Lee, welcomes an old friend to his New Orleans home.

ALABAMA SLIM: Alabama Slim.

WILLIAMS: Alabama Slim.

ELLIOTT: Slim was born Milton Frazier. He's 80. His friend Lightning Lee is 76.

WILLIAMS: I'm really rusty. Like, y'all sure y'all want to put up with me?

ALABAMA SLIM: You're all right.

WILLIAMS: I'm all right?

ALABAMA SLIM: You're all right.

ELLIOTT: Lee's not playing much these days but keeps his guitar at the ready in the corner of his living room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: (Singing) They call me guitar lightning from downtown New Orleans. They call me guitar lightning from downtown New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: Music Maker has helped Lee recover from a bout with lung cancer and take care of his bedridden brother.

WILLIAMS: If it would not be for Music Maker, I don't know where I'd be at right now. That's true. They've been like a rock, I tell you that. They've been looking out for me.

ELLIOTT: The foundation also preserves the music by recording these artists.

ALABAMA SLIM: I got a chance to cut this CD, "The Mighty Flood." You know, and they kept me kind of going overseas just a whole lot, you know?

ELLIOTT: Alabama Slim says Music Maker produced his album with Little Freddie King.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MIGHTY FLOOD")

ALABAMA SLIM: (Singing) I said did you hear about the mighty flood that happened way down in New Orleans?

ELLIOTT: Slim has two portraits in Timothy Duffy's "Blue Muse."

ALABAMA SLIM: That's kind of unusual there because, actually, that's me.

TAJ MAHAL: It's stunning. You know, you got to go, like, wow.

ELLIOTT: Noted bluesman Taj Mahal's portrait is also in the book.

MAHAL: I never saw it in this kind of sharpness, in this clarity, this kind of energy. It's so - I mean, all the energy's there.

ELLIOTT: In part because of the photographic process Duffy uses - the tintype. It was widely popular in the late-1800s, says Russell Lord, curator of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

RUSSELL LORD: And it really was the first photographic process in which we see a much more diverse population in the United States because it was ubiquitous, and it was less expensive than earlier processes.

ELLIOTT: Lord explains how it works.

LORD: It's a thin layer of chemistry on top of a blackened metal plate. And so you're either looking through the chemistry at the metal plate or the chemistry is blocking the plate. And where it reflects back at you, you're able to see it as a positive. And it's a beautiful, beautiful process. They do sparkle. They do kind of dazzle your eye a little bit.

ELLIOTT: In another photograph, Lena Mae Perry of The Branchettes vocal group from Raleigh, N.C., has her eyes closed and her hands raised as if in praise. Timothy Duffy says he wanted to evoke the gospel.

DUFFY: So in this one, I put crushed tin foil in the back to make, like, a church and put her hands up, and I think it really shows who she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW I'VE BEEN CHANGED")

THE BRANCHETTES: (Singing) You know that I know I've been changed. Oh, oh, oh, I, I know I've been changed.

ELLIOTT: For Taj Mahal, the appeal of the portraits is the respect Duffy shows for his subjects.

MAHAL: Oftentimes, people who photograph Indigenous or local people or folklore or whatever, they tend to be, like - whether they know it or not, they tend to be, like, voyeurs. And there's a way to do it where the image that's inside speaks totally to the camera.

ELLIOTT: Mahal has worked in partnership with Music Maker Relief Foundation to help celebrate these little-known players.

MAHAL: Both the microphone and the camera passed them by. A lot of the work was done by, you know, people who were nameless.

ELLIOTT: But they're in the spotlight now through the end of July at the New Orleans Museum of Art and in Timothy Duffy's book "Blue Muse."

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNAP YOUR FINGERS")

ALGIA MAE HINTON: (Singing) You just snap your fingers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.