'Blue Muse,' A Book, Album And Exhibit From Photographer Tim Duffy Tim Duffy started Music Maker Relief Foundation to support blues musicians lost to time and poverty. He's also photographed their portraits for a new book, compilation album and museum exhibition.
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Capturing The Undersung Blues People Of The Rural South

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Capturing The Undersung Blues People Of The Rural South

Capturing The Undersung Blues People Of The Rural South

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


ALGIA MAE HINTON: (Singing) You just snap your fingers.

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