Many people know North Carolina for its beaches, its barbecue or its college basketball, but it’s likely that fewer know the state for its rich musical heritage. The list of artists hailing from North Carolina spans decades and musical traditions, and it includes jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, guitar pioneer Elizabeth Cotten, banjo player Earl Scruggs and legendary singer Nina Simone — just to name a few.
One organization based in Hillsborough wants to ensure that this legacy is not forgotten. Music Maker Relief Foundation was founded in 1994, and since then, the foundation has made a mission of preserving the musical heritage of the South, in addition to providing professional and financial support to the artists — many of whom live in poverty — who are continuing those traditions today. From Dec. 4 to 8 at The Fruit in downtown Durham, the organization is celebrating its community of artists for its 25th anniversary with Music Maker 25, a series of performances, public discussions and exhibitions presented in collaboration with Duke Performances.
The story of Music Maker began when Tim Duffy, who co-founded the foundation with his wife Denise, began documenting blues and roots music as part of a masters’ curriculum in folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill. Along the way, Duffy noticed that many of his favorite artists worked in total obscurity.
“Some of the greatest musicians of the world, you really had to work very hard to meet them,” Duffy said. “They’re all extremely poor, and no one was tooting their horn.”
One of these artists, James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, introduced Duffy to the blues guitarist known as Guitar Gabriel, who then opened the door for Duffy to the vibrant blues scene of North Carolina. From there, the Music Maker Relief Foundation was born, with a community of founding artists that included Stephens, Gabriel, Willa Mae Buckner, Preston Fulp and more.
Realizing that there was no real “business model” for promoting these musicians, Duffy sought to form a new model for supporting their work. In many cases, this support involves not only booking tours and connecting the artists with labels, but also helping them meet their most basic needs: housing, health care, daily finances. A large part of the foundation’s work has been fighting the stigmas associated with poverty.
“We’re not afraid to buy somebody a car, or buy them a house, buy them medicine, bank their tours when they go to Europe,” Duffy said. “A lot of people are scared to help poor people with real financial resources. It’s nothing to be scared of.”
With next week’s festival, Music Maker aims to celebrate 25 years of supporting traditional art and educating new generations, bringing its community of artists to a wider audience. After a Nov. 19 opening reception that featured selections of Duffy’s tintype photography — which will be on display in Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center until the end of January — the series officially begins Wednesday with “Pickers and Storytellers,” the opening performance at The Fruit. Wednesday’s lineup includes Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose debut album was released by Music Maker, Durham-based folklorist and songwriter Jake Xerxes Fussell and Virginia-based guitarist Gail Caesar.
Caesar’s story is indicative of many of the artists affiliated with Music Maker. A native of rural Pittsylvania County, Va., Caesar has spent most of her career playing for friends and family, rarely leaving her home county — but not because she couldn’t; she simply didn’t feel the need to. Duffy compared her to Etta Baker, the influential North Carolina-based guitarist who reportedly turned down offers to perform at the Newport Folk Festival because she was raising a family, calling her the “real jewel” of Music Maker 25.
Each night of the festival highlights a different tradition within Music Maker, which has gone beyond blues to include gospel, zydeco and Native American music. Eric Oberstein, interim director of Duke Performances, pointed to Saturday night’s Blues Revue as the “traditional Music Maker experience,” but emphasized how the rest of the series allows a diverse range of other traditions to emerge.
“We recognize the platform that we have here at Duke,” Oberstein said of Duke Performances’ role in the festival. “We feel we have a special responsibility to give a platform to these artists and to these voices, especially those that have been silenced in many ways.”
Duke Performances also helped to develop an exhibition that will open to audiences before each evening performance at The Fruit. Joel Johnson, art director at Duke Performances, and Kimber Heinz, a public historian and exhibit developer, co-curated the exhibition, which chronicles the 25-year history of the foundation and where it’s going next.
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Through the text, photographs and artifacts that make up the exhibition, Johnson and Heinz made it a priority to center the stories of the artists — like Gabriel, Buckner and Caesar — who have always been at the heart of Music Maker.
“The folks who founded Music Maker, one of the first things that they’ll say is that they really co-founded that organization with some of the founding artists,” Heinz said. “Each one of them has an incredible history. We wanted to try to share what we could … about who these folks were, within and beyond the scope of their work with Music Maker.”
Over the years, the artists connected with Music Maker have found fans in Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton and played shows at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. But Johnson said he hoped that audiences at Music Maker 25 would learn about a history that, despite its high-profile fans, still rarely gets told.
“Music is history,” Johnson said. “Styles of music have a source, and I think it’s just incredible that some of these people had huge influences on artists that most people are familiar with, but would never know that these artists were the basis for that.”
Music Maker runs from Wednesday, Dec. 4 to Sunday, Dec. 8 at The Fruit. Visit dukeperformances.duke.edu for more information, including ticket prices.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Dom Flemons’ name. The Chronicle regrets the error.