Before the internet, learning a song took real effort. You had to sound out a tune by ear, find someone to teach you, or study a songbook. For mere mortals without perfect pitch or readily available mentors, getting your hands on sheet music or guitar tablature was like striking gold, opening a whole new vein of musical possibilities—long before detailed YouTube lessons and note-by-note instructional apps.
The finest classic songbooks—Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag, jazz’s coveted The Real Book, or the vocals-focused Rise Up Singing—also imparted folk wisdom and historical context alongside piano notations and vocal melodies. That all-encompassing spirit is captured by Deep in the South: A Music Maker Songbook. Out September 20, the 89-page book showcases 27 different songs, combining guitar tablature and lyrics with riveting biographies, musicological footnotes, and evocative photos.
In the line with the mission of the Music Maker Foundation—the nonprofit cultural organization based in Hillsborough—the 18 artists showcased in Deep in the South are lesser-known blues, folk, and gospel innovators whose expertise deserves extra attention.
From the Piedmont to Atlanta, up Mississippi’s hill country and downriver in New Orleans, Music Maker founder Timothy [Tim] Duffy, acclaimed journalist Chuck Reece, and guitarist Earle Pughe dig deep into the lives of Etta Baker, Guitar Gabriel, Beverly Watkins, and Little Freddie King, along with hidden Triangle heroes like John Dee Holeman and Preston Fulp.
The journey furthers Southern folklore—and adds another vital entry into the pantheon of great American songbooks. Ahead of the book’s release, INDY Week spoke with both Reece and Duffy about the new project. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
INDY WEEK: Tim, how did the original idea for this book come about?
Tim Duffy: My friend Earle Pughe is a guitar player and teacher in Boston. He wanted to transcribe some of Music Maker’s songs so he could teach them in lessons. He had the idea and the vision—it just took me four years to figure out how to do it.
What makes Deep in the South stand out?
TD: If you look at a lot of country-blues books, they always include the same people: Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Robert Johnson. It’s the same collection of songs. That’s great—you have to keep these songs alive. But no one was broadening it. Etta Baker’s songs in Deep in the South are not well known. But they’re beautiful and intricate pieces. So Earle had the transcriptions, then we brought in Chuck Reece, who founded The Bitter Southerner and recently started Salvation South, to edit the book. He tells the stories of the artists. When you look at each chapter, you get a vibe of who they are, along with a curation of my photographs, many of which were shot here in North Carolina.
And sophisticated insight on the musicality of these artists.
TD: Exactly. If you’re a music head, when you read what Earle writes about how John Dee Holeman raises the flat seventh, it puts his genius into musicological terms. Dizzy Gillespie often said jazz is America’s classical music and the blues is America’s folk music. There are these secret chords—these little tiny notes—that are ancient sounds. Now they’re transcribed so other people can learn them.
Chuck, what drew you to the project?
CHUCK REECE: It was really rewarding to dive into such a big swath of the musical landscape. Music Maker exists to search out the unsung heroes of American music. They go deep. And to understand the South, you have to go deep into what has built our culture. Richard Murff describes it as a gumbo: “Its father was a West African stew, its mother a French bouillabaisse.” Southern culture is this mixture of the culture of enslaved people—and the culture of the people who enslaved them. So many great things have arisen from that intersection. You can see that in the variety of artists in this book, including a guy like Benjamin Tehoval, who is French. When you hear him play the blues, it sounds like he came from down here.
TD: I love that we put Benjamin in the book. Europeans are very important for the blues. There’s a thought in America that maybe the blues are gone. But that’s only because it isn’t in plain view of white people—right in your face. That’s why we do this kind of systematic work, finding interesting musicians and recording them so they can be seen by people outside of their microcommunities.
Artists from all over the South are featured here. What ties them all together?
TD: How authentic and truthful they are. Their musicality—the catchiness of their melodies. It’s deceptively simple. Everyone wants to play all the notes up and down the neck of the guitar. That’s actually easier than playing three to four notes that someone will remember. When you listen to Etta Baker or Precious Bryant, their music is so serene and beautiful. There’s a warmth to it. It’s not hypertechnical. Robert “Wolfman” Belfour plays one riff over and over again. John Dee Holeman played like Lightnin’ Hopkins. Lightnin’ saw John Dee in Durham a few years before he died and said, “You got it.” That’s how good these artists are.
In the intro to Deep in the South, Guitar Gabriel says, “You won’t find the blues in notes or on paper.”
TD: That’s true. You do have to go live the blues. It’s a lifestyle that requires dedication. But this book is the gateway—hopefully a glimpse that helps you learn the necessary pieces.
The book also feels utilitarian—affordable, spiral-bound, easy to flip through.
CR: It’s a book made for guitar players first and foremost. Our dream is that Deep in the South will be propped up on a music stand or laid down on a coffee table, wherever you happen to be picking at the time. That’s where it belongs. If it withstands the test of time, gets dog-eared and stained, and has notes written in it 20 years from now, then it’s a success.
What defines success for you, Tim?
TD: This isn’t a $60 book like Blue Muse, so I hope lots of people buy it [laughs]. But it’s really about realizing this music is present. It sounds archaic, but it’s not antique. It’s constantly evolving and changing. It’s a deep well that Music Maker’s artists are tapping into. It’s the aquifer of America. And anyone can find it! It’s not some technical, mystical, or hard thing. The blues are right there for you. Just don’t get lost in the technique. If you can play with an authentic feeling and make people happy and feel human, that’s success. That’s universal.
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