Before Hurricane Katrina, singer Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen was known as the Queen of Bourbon Street, a busy performer who rarely had to leave the city for a gig.
But nine years after evacuating, the N.C. transplant hasn’t regained the vibrant career she left behind. This winter was particularly difficult. Her heater died. Its replacement died two weeks later. Her pipes froze and broke. Her roof fell in, and her house was robbed while she was doing a show.
“It was one crazy disaster after the next,” she says. After her car died, she decided to call in a favor. “I’d exhausted every dime I had. I’d never asked for anything, but at this point, I just needed some help. I was throwing out my S.O.S. lights.”
Cohen contacted the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an N.C.-based nonprofit that helps musicians – many of them elderly and Southern – procure work, health care and financial assistance. Music Maker had previously booked Cohen for live performances in the South and overseas, and when she called, the group went to bat for her.
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“We’ve been raising money and making contacts to help her get transportation,” says Tim Duffy, Music Maker’s founder.
Music Maker recently celebrated its 20th anniversary in the Triangle area with a homecoming concert and the opening of “We Are the Music Makers,” a traveling exhibition that premiered at the New York Public Library in July. The exhibit is currently at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, then will be on display at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby Jan. 9-May 3. Next September, it will move into the Levine Museum of the New South for an eight-month stay.
The exhibit features Duffy’s photographs of 30 blues musicians he’s worked with, as well as artifacts and instruments, N.C. folk art, and the Grammy won by the Carolina Chocolate Drops – who got their start collaborating with Music Maker artist Joe Thompson.
September marked the publication of Duffy’s “We Are the Music Makers” photography book and a two-CD compilation set.
Duffy founded Music Maker in 1994 after studying folklore at the UNC Chapel Hill. He’d started out recording picking parties in the mountains while attending Warren Wilson College, and later studied the oud (an African string instrument) in Kenya.
“At Chapel Hill ... I met all these old blues artists and thought about what I was going to do with (my life),” Duffy says, noting that many were dead poor, living on less than $10,000 a year. “I was studying the different models – how people dealt with Southern culture, how (archivists and folklorists) Archie Green or Alan Lomax or the folk revival did it. None of it seemed to work out great for the artist.
“I thought I’d start a new model where you’d engage folk culture one-on-one with the blues artists and cross lines of poverty, class, education and neighborhoods – find the greatest purveyors of American folk music today and help them out.”
Recording the blues
He spent three years recording blues artists like Guitar Gabriel (who died in 1996), Etta Baker (who died in 2006), and John Dee Holeman. His father’s friend Mark Levinson – an audiophile who crafted state-of-the-art recording equipment – was blown away by Duffy’s recordings. “He demonstrated my recordings through his hi-fi system and raised $20,000 for the foundation in a weekend,” Duffy says.
Music Maker created a sustenance program to give artists a monthly stipend for things like medicine, and it helps with professional development, booking, recording and releasing albums.
Artists who work with Music Maker in turn become its ambassadors; early on, it was folks like Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Cootie Stark, Gabriel and Baker. The organization has A-list supporters like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and actress Kim Cattrall.
Part of the reason for creating the traveling exhibit – other than to honor its artists – was to spread the word about Music Maker in an economy that is challenging for nonprofits.
“We’re not a big government aid agency,” he says. “We’re tiny. We work with about 300 folks. Everyone wants to work. It’s not a handout. It’s a hand-up organization.”
“You have to do the work. You’re not going to get anything by waiting for someone to do it for you,” says Cohen, who struggled with finding work and depression after being displaced. She bought a house in East Spencer with her savings to anchor her, but that tied her to an unfamiliar area where she had few connections.
“I lost everything. When we talk about ‘everything,’ people think that it is just stuff, like clothes and your car and sound equipment. But more than the stuff, it was everything I was familiar with – the people, my jobs, my agents. All of that,” says Cohen, who is jump-starting her career by taking online classes, learning social media, website building, grant writing, and searching for a booking agent.
“It’s not an easy life as a musician,” she says. “You don’t have medical care, any kind of insurance, or Social Security money because you’ve always worked getting gigs. Music Maker helps point you in the right direction.”