The Music Maker Relief Foundation turns 25 this year. And the organization is giving rather than getting the birthday presents.
After assisting more than 450 artists with living and health expenses, the nonprofit will commemorate its time with a variety of projects. The multi-artist Blue Muse compilation — which features tracks by Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons and Robert Finley as well as Music Maker-assisted artists — arrives Feb. 1 (pre-order here) and is premiering exclusively below. A graphic novel Tales of the Music Makers, illustrated by the late Harvey Pekar, publishes during February as well, while Music Maker Timothy Duffy’s photo book Blue Muse comes out March 28, with a traveling exhibition opening April 25 at the New Orleans Museum of Art during the city’s Jazz & Heritage Festival. Music Makers will also have a presence at several other festivals this year.
“It seems like five minutes ago I hung out with Guitar Gabriel and was brought into the whole mission of what he was saying, that the blues will never die and it’s a spirit that will keep on going,” Duffy tells Billboard. “It’s a real mission to help these artists that still hold dear to these archaic traditions and keep ’em going. I’m more invigorated than ever to support these guys and have their music heard and celebrated. And if we can help them with some money every month for a needed prescription or rent or food or gas, or help them get on world stages, that’s what we’ll do.”
The Blue Muse album is certainly a testament to the value of Music Maker’s work, showcasing the work of under-the-radar blues stalwarts such as Guitar Gabriel, Ironing Board Sam, Boot Hanks, Alabama Slim and others. The 21-song set also features the first single (“I Am the Lightnin'”) from Willie Farmer’s upcoming album The Man on the Hill, which comes out March 1 and was produced by Bruce Watson. Music Maker helped Farmer get a passport so he could start playing in Europe and also provided professional publicity photos and helped him book worldwide festival appearances. “I’m excited. This record is a completely different style than anything I’ve ever done before,” Farmer says. “Everyone in Duck Hill (Miss.) is anxious to hear it.”
The Clapton track — “Mississippi Blues,” with Duffy — hails from a casual session during 1995 in New York, when Duffy first told Clapton about Music Makers. “We spent the day listening to music and played some tunes,” Duffy recalls. “It’s just been sitting there, kind of like a lost field recording, so I thought I’d throw it on there.” The inclusion, according to Duffy, celebrates Clapton’s long-standing commitment to Music Maker alongside his own Crossroads Foundation charity. “He’s always the nicest gentleman, very supportive of what we do,” Duffy says. “He’s always given great quotes about Music Maker. He reveres the blues and really steps up to help out, so it’s great we can use this track on our thing.”
Duffy and company are vested in seeing Music Maker continue, and grow, in the coming years, too — hopefully with greater resources but with a mission that will remain largely unchanged. “We’re just trying to help these artists, however we can,” he says. “Commercially, the business isn’t really there and never has been there for these artists. Hopefully we can get the world out that this great music that’s kind of invisible is right here amongst us. It’s still alive — not only blues but all roots music traditions. We can spread the work, but more than that we can help out the people who make that music, and who have been excluded from the riches of a multi-billion-dollar industry by how the system works.”