Friday, February 04, 2011

Guitar Gabriel & the Music Maker Foundation

I first became acquainted with Tim Duffy when he was a folklorist as well as promoting a cassette of a downhome blues musician named Guitar Gabriel. It turned out this Guitar Gabriel was a person who had recorded a marvelous album I had as Nyles Jones, called “My South/ My Blues” on an obscure Pittsburgh label, Gemini. The music was small group downhome blues that displayed the influenced of Lightning Hopkins and Blind Boy Fuller, with a strong rendition of “Betty and Dupree” as well as “The Welfare Blues” where he told his woman “what in the world are you gonna do, when the welfare turns their back on you.”

Locating Guitar Gabriel was at the beginning of what would be the Music Makers Foundation, an organization Tim and his wife Denise formed to provide assistance primarily for musicians in southern roots music traditions. Assistance has run from purchasing instruments, arranging for medical care, helping with housing, booking for concerts and festivals, production of CDs for artists to sell and other similar activities. It has been an activity that has attracted the support of many (such as this writer) including well-known musicians Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton.

In its early years, the Music Maker Foundation issued some releases through an arrangement with a major US label, and veteran producer Mike Vernon was involved with some releases if I recall correctly. More recently, the Music Maker Foundation has released recordings on its own. In the course of its activities, it has documented the music of many artists and issued new recordings of artists that more commercial labels would never attempt to do, and also the process of manufacturing CDs has gotten cheaper so small batches of recordings can be produced as needed. These releases range from informal packages with simple cardboard covers and links to the web for liner notes to fuller CD packages with a full CD cover and a liner notes booklet.

MMF has not eschewed totally working with commercial labels, and in recent years has licensed material for release overseas on the French DixieFrog label with commercial distribution. Tim Duffy was in Washington DC recently where we discussed over lunch the ongoing work of the MMF and after lunch handed me a copy of a CD/DVD release from 2009 on Dixie Frog by Guitar Gabriel entitled “The Beginning of The Music Maker Story.” The CD is dedicated to Guitar Gabriel and includes 21 songs, most of which were recorded in the early part of the 1990s but also included are two selections from his 1970 album, “Ain’t Gonna Let No Woman,” and “The Welfare Blues.” These tracks sound like they were dubbed from copies of the vinyl lp. The rest come tapes and some of these performances which likely have been previously been released on cassette tapes or CDs by Gabriel. {Since I wrote this Tim Duffy has advised me that the majority of the tracks were previously unissued}.

The CD here has over seventy minutes of music and serves as a fine document of Guitar Gabriel’s music. His father was Sonny Jones who hung around and recorded with Blind Boy Fuller, one of the great Piedmont bluesmen of the thirties (a big influence on John Cephas, John Dee Holeman and others), and these Piedmont roots are evident throughout the performances here which range from talking blues, a gospel number sung with his brother. There are wonderful renditions of familiar folk-blues like “Betty and Dupree” and “John Henry” showing that he remained a facile guitarist able who had lost little in the two decades since recording “My South/My Blues.” Tim Duffy is present on many of these tracks as a second guitarist with other folks like pianist Michael Parrish, and fiddler Sam Duffy joining in. His voice may not be as flexible and able to reach the high notes as he was in 1970, but he remained an expressive vocalist and story teller.

Tracks of special note, in addition to the two reissued from 1970, include “Wahoo Rap,” a talking blues about an elixir he used to pitch in his younger days to cure whatever ails one; “Started Out This Morning,” with some agile guitar; the lively cover of “Going to New York”; the terrific fingerpicking on his rendition of “John Henry”; the charming “Old Man Rivers” with his narrative and some flugel horn added by Mark Levinson; “I Got the Right to Cry Sometimes,” with his spare electric guitar employing an atmospheric tremolo; “Baby Please Don’t Go” done as a string band performance with sam Duffy’s violin adding color; and “Done Got Tired,” with Tim Duffy adding slide-guitar, has a swamp blues tinge in the deliberate guitar and gravelly vocal from Gabriel. One other track to note is“You Got To Watch Yourself” that might seem like a genially sounding talking blues except for Gabriel’s expletive filled recitation and vocal. It is definitely not safe for broadcast. A few bum notes perhaps, and some source material is rough, but this stands as a wonderful testament of Guitar Gabriel’s music

In addition to the CD, the DVD contains the film, “Toot Blues: The Story of the Music Maker Foundation,” a film directed by Chris Johnstone that includes oral history from Tim and Denise Duffy and others involved in MMF over the years along with clips of performances, and in a casual setting, of many of the performers (some have passed on such as Guitar Gabriel) and provides an insight into how the programs of assistance MMF makes started an evolved. One consequence of the MMF’s programs that was not initially intended was the community that has formed among the musicians who have been assisted and who have gone from neighborhood performers playing for friends and neighbors to touring the world, singing their blues, country, folk and other musics to folk in Europe and South America. One really appealing scene is in Argentina where the MMF musicians are scene playing with Miguel Botofogo, who has fanned the blues flame for decades himself. A marvelous documentary that explains what Music Maker Foundation does better than mere words.

Together this is a terrific package although MMF may show this as I write this as out-of-stock at their website,, in fact they have copies and this should be in their web-store when you check. The music is available on itunes and available from Dixiefrog,, and other European sources. Hopefully Music Maker Foundation will have this back in stock soon as it is a terrific package.

I received this from the Music Maker Foundation.

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