Wednesday, Dec. 4–Sunday, Dec. 8

The Fruit, Durham

“Artists are sort of like monks—we give all that we’ve got to the people, and we don’t make a whole lot of money doing what we do,” says veteran vocalist Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen, who was known as the “Queen of Bourbon Street” while performing six nights a week in New Orleans’s French Quarter.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed Cohen’s Ninth Ward apartment in 2005, she evacuated to North Carolina. After not performing for two years, she worried that she’d left behind her career as well as her wordly belongings.

“I thought that I might not be able to continue because I didn’t have the right connections,” Cohen says. But eventually, the Winston-Salem bluesman Big Ron Hunter introduced her to Music Maker Relief Foundation, which got her performing again. On December 7, she’s part of a blues revue in the Hillsborough-based nonprofit’s twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration, for which Duke Performances is bringing a wide variety of blues and folk concerts and talks to The Fruit next week.   

“That was not only the first outlet I had to actually start working and singing again, but also put me together with a community of people that became a family,” Cohen says.

Since 1994, Music Maker Relief Foundation has partnered with more than four hundred artists to preserve Southern musical traditions by arranging performances, releasing albums, providing artist-sustenance programs, and coordinating educational programs. Tim Duffy, who founded the organization with a small group of Winston-Salem artists, estimates that nearly 90 percent of the albums released on Music Maker’s label have been the artists’ recorded debuts, many of them decades into their careers. 

“We had elderly musicians, and they were completely unknown,” Duffy says, thinking back on the early years of Music Maker. “When you looked at the folk musicians and blues musicians that got famous, they needed access to be known—gatekeepers like Alan Lomax or Chris Strachwitz—and to get to the record companies, but the rest of the world thought that was it.” 

As a graduate student in folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duffy met Lomax at the “Sounds of the South” conference in 1989. 

“He told me that as much work as he and his father had done, they never covered even the tip of the iceberg,” Duffy says. “He said that there’s a great Black river of songs in the South, and it’s endless, which I’ve found to be true.” 

Duffy, who strives to treat artists as partners rather than subjects, says that a steep learning curve and a lot of hard—and unpaid—work went into his first five years, while he formalized the organization’s programs. That was true for himself and for the artists he partnered with. 

“I learned that the Social Security rules were different if you were a farm laborer, so if you picked cucumbers all your life like [Piedmont blues guitarist] Algia Mae Hinton, you ended up with only $450 to $500 per month when you retired,” he says. 

Though trained as a folklorist, Duffy found himself in a social-worker-like role, addressing food insecurity and medical needs, until the organization was able to hire an actual social worker last year. He saw talented musicians pawning their instruments to pay for essentials like food, rent, and medicine, so Music Maker instituted sustenance grants, both to meet basic needs and provide emergency relief. When Cohen’s East Spencer home caught fire in 2016, Music Maker sprang in to assist. 

“I lost everything for the second time,” she says. “When I called them, they were right there to help me within a couple of days—not weeks or months.”

Duffy’s knowledge of the recording industry has helped the organization release almost 170 albums, none bigger—at least commercially—than Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, the 2006 debut from the North Carolina-based Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won a Grammy for best traditional folk album a few years later. Expect to learn more about that on Friday, when Duffy appears on a panel with Fat Possum Records owner Bruce Watson, who helped secure wide distribution for the album. 

Durham musician Phil Cook first learned about Music Maker via Taj Mahal—who released an album of collaborations with Music Maker artists in 2004—and Bonnie Raitt. He also credits artists like the Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens for pointing listeners back to the organization, providing its lifeblood. 

When Cook moved to the Triangle from Wisconsin in 2005, he was inspired by the traditional music of North Carolina, from the blues of Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis to old-time artists such as Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Tommy Jarrell. Cook has since worked with Music Maker on several projects, including his continuing work with Sister Lena Mae Perry of Johnston County gospel group The Branchettes, who he performs with at The Fruit on Sunday

“I was looking for a gospel group that would be willing to collaborate with a dude like me,” Cook says, crediting Music Maker program manager Aaron Greenhood for the introduction to Sister Perry. “She just changed my life forever in a really beautiful way, and has opened me up in a lot of ways that I wasn’t expecting, musically and spiritually.”

Cook has brought Sister Perry with him to perform for hip crowds at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival and is producing a record with The Branchettes, due out next year, in an effort to do what he learned from Raitt: bringing awareness to the music that has inspired his own. 

“These are people that built all the sonic landscape that we, as Americans, understand music through,” Cook says. “To see them going broke and penniless and homeless over dental bills and broken cars—basic, simple needs that people have—is a massive injustice, so I look at [Music Maker] as a social-justice organization that’s using music as the vehicle.”