Beer and soda cans litter the sidewalk to “Captain” Luke Mayer’s apartment on the outskirts of downtown Winston-Salem. But this “trash” has a purpose. Cans and found debris crowd the shelves and tables of his living room, waiting to be fashioned into objets d’art: an ashtray intricately inlaid with a pull-tab border, a lamp fashioned out of a shredded Busch Light can, a miniature Pepsi Cola car with Colt 45 bottle-cap wheels, even a Natural Light airplane piloted by hand-carved wooden figures. Self-taught artist Captain Luke creates these funky folk-art pieces to share with friends, family and community. But art is just the Captain’s hobby; his passion is singing the blues.
Captain Luke and his friend and fellow bluesman Macavine Hayes have lived only blocks from one another for more than 30 years. On the front steps of Macavine’s apartment, he and Luke sit playing and singing blues tunes. People walking and driving by shout greetings, to which Luke gallantly responds with a slight tip of his admiral’s hat. Together, they create and preserve this American musical art each time they play the streets, “drink houses,” clubs, and churches around their neighborhood. Now, thanks to the Hillsborough-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, Inc., they’re able to continue sharing their experiences having traveled life’s long, hard road–the same road that Music Maker was created on. It all began with another friend, neighbor, and musical companion of the Captain and Macavine: a man that they called “Guitar Gabriel.”
Born Robert Lewis Jones in 1925 in Atlanta, Ga., “Guitar Gabriel” moved with his family to Winston-Salem when he was 5. His family, who grew up sharecropping, shared a talent for music. His great-grandmother, an ex-slave, called set dances and played the banjo; his grandfather played banjo and his grandmother the pump organ; his father and uncle were blues guitarists and singers and his sisters sang blues and gospel.
When the family moved to Durham in 1935, 10-year-old Gabriel took to the streets with his guitar. He claims to have met and learned from blues legends Blind Boy Fuller and the Reverend Gary Davis. Between the ages of 15 and 25, Gabriel traveled the country, making stops in Memphis, Nashville, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco and New York, playing his music. Before long he found a steady gig playing his guitar at medicine shows. It was during this period that Gabriel acquired the sheepskin hat that became–and remained–his trademark throughout the rest of his performing career. He also adopted a stage name, “Guitar Gabriel,” during a stint where he was playing in a band for the traveling Dixie Classic Fair during the day and at burlesque shows at night.
In 1970, Gabriel went up to Philadelphia and recorded a single, “Welfare Blues,” as well as an album My South, My Blues with the Gemini label under the name “Nyles” Jones. The 45 became a hit in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and though the album sold well, Gabriel, as was typical for many African-American blues and R&B artists, never saw any royalties. Disgusted and embittered by the music business, Gabriel returned home to Winston-Salem where he continued playing his music, but expressly for his community: churches, homes, clubs, “drink houses,” and even at bus stops when children were returning home from school. That’s when he hooked up with Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes. For the next 20 years, the trio comprised the heart of Winston-Salem’s traditional blues scene, a scene that also included a 26-year-old, white guitar player and folklorist from Connecticut named Timothy Duffy.
Duffy came to North Carolina in the late 1980s as a graduate student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Curriculum of Folklore. While researching a documentary project for UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, Duffy met James “Guitar Slim” Stephens. Through Slim, Duffy found his way into the inner-city blues culture of Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Duffy accompanied Slim around the Triad playing at “drink houses.” These neighborhood house parties/speakeasies have become the Piedmont’s oldest and most pervasive venues for blues artists. They’re intimate and exclusive and Duffy was among the first to document them.
Duffy spent a year making the rounds with Slim, playing and recording live gigs and interviewing the regulars. Then, at age 74, Slim was diagnosed with cancer. On his deathbed, he urged Duffy to continue his blues education and seek out an old friend–another Piedmont blues great named Guitar Gabriel.
In March of 1990, while substitute teaching at an inner-city school in Winston-Salem, Duffy decided to take Slim’s advice. He asked his homeroom students if they knew the whereabouts of Guitar Gabriel. To his surprise, half of them talked about Gabriel as if he were a mythic character out of Greek mythology, saying that he’d been killed in a house fire. Fortunately, one of the students spoke up and said, “He is not dead. He is my next-door neighbor.” She proceeded to give him directions to a drink house where Gabriel hung out, and Duffy went there directly after school. There he met Gabriel’s son, Hawkeye, who led him to Gabriel’s apartment.
“When I first walked into Gabe’s door, he said, ‘I know where you want to go, I’ve been there before and I can take you there.’ It was like meeting a sage. He then said, ‘You must make me two promises: One, don’t fuck me over or I’ll shoot you with my gun, and two, when I die, bury me with my guitar.’”
From that moment on, Duffy and Gabriel were pretty much inseparable, becoming a fixture of Winston-Salem’s clubs and drink houses. Duffy quit his teaching job and hit the road with Gabriel, performing in festivals throughout the Southeast, in restaurants and music stores, on college campuses and at Carnegie Hall. They even traveled to Europe a few times.
Through Gabriel, Duffy met Macavine Hayes, Captain Luke, Mr. Q (Cueselle Settle) and Willa Mae Buckner of Winston-Salem. He spent night after night with Gabriel and his friends, and soon began to recognize how poverty gripped their lives. There was never enough money to meet even the most basic necessities: food, medical care, rent and utilities. Consequently, Duffy spent time picking many of them up in his van to take them to cheese lines or to the bank to cash their social security checks, to the drug store to fill prescriptions and to the post office to get money orders to pay their bills.
Working out of a cramped utility building behind the house he and his wife, Denise, were renting in Winston-Salem, Duffy booked gigs in local venues and made field recordings of Gabriel and a handful of other artists. He sought out recording deals for them, but to no avail. As Duffy learned, these artists had other ways of getting by.
“Gabriel showed me how to make it on the road,” Duffy says. “We started traveling towards Pittsburgh once with $20 in our pockets. When we ran out of gas, we’d go into a café and play. We’d sell my taped recordings of Gabe and T-shirts we had printed up with his face on it. He’d go around with his hat and we came out with $80. He had spent a lifetime going around like this. He bestowed a lot of knowledge to me about how these guys actually made it.”
The two finally got a break in December of 1993 when they caught the attention of Mark Levinson, an audio pioneer with the New York City-based Cello Music and Film Systems. Levinson was so moved by Duffy’s recordings of Gabriel and his stories about the daily living conditions of such artists that he decided to help. Levinson shared with Duffy his vision of creating a nonprofit called the Music Maker Relief Foundation Inc., an organization that would not only help artists with their day-to-day needs but record and preserve their musical heritage.
He and Duffy began remastering field recordings and writing liner notes for a compilation CD, A Living Past. This CD was then sent out to a broad network of professionals in the recording industry. Slowly, donations for the foundation began trickling in.
By January 1994, Duffy had enough funds to get the foundation off the ground and $100,000 worth of recording equipment, which he used to make his first two high-fidelity recordings of Southern music. Later that year, Mark Levinson met Eric Clapton in New York City. He told Clapton about Duffy’s work and the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Within weeks, Duffy was in New York to meet with Clapton.
“That’s when Eric Clapton heard the Gabriel track,” says Duffy.
He and Clapton spent the afternoon talking about the Piedmont Blues scene and listening to field recordings. Duffy even had the opportunity to record a couple of tracks with the guitar great. Before leaving that day, Clapton pledged his support to the foundation.
With Clapton on board, Music Maker began receiving attention in the press. Soon more celebrities were on the foundation’s list of donors: Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Each wanted to help preserve traditional Southern music by supporting musicians like Guitar Gabriel.
“(They) were all attracted to Guitar Gabriel as a great man and a great artist. Therefore, he was truly the great architect of the Music Maker Relief Foundation,” says Duffy. “He envisioned it.”
But on April 2, 1996, just as the foundation was getting on its feet, Guitar Gabriel passed away. In his will, he left every song he’d ever written to the foundation. “He made us promise before he died that we would not let people forget who he was and what he did,” says Duffy. “So we try to keep his spirit alive through the work that we do.”
In its mission statement, Music Maker affirms its dedication to “helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs.”
“Music Maker is buying me some teeth,” says Macavine Hayes. “I’ve got mine,” adds Captain Luke, illustrating the fact by flashing a toothy grin. Both are passing a lazy day in their Winston-Salem neighborhood, a place that’s become much more comfortable thanks to Music Maker.
“I take blood pressure pills, too,” continues Luke. “And I don’t have to call them–they call me! Once I tell them what I need, they send out a check in the mail immediately.” Hayes reaches over and pulls out his Gibson guitar. “They also gave me this,” he says. “Yep,” says Captain Luke, “I’ve got one back at the house that they bought me.” Luke then reaches into his back pocket and pulls out some Polaroids from his recent travels to Georgia, Maine, Europe and other places where he’s toured, courtesy of the foundation. “I played once in front of 4,000 people in Switzerland a while back,” he states, his baritone voice resonating with pride. “Switzerland is a long way from this old neighborhood.”
While providing grants for life’s necessities, buying quality instruments and supporting artists who want to tour, Music Maker not only is building but maintaining a community of traditional musicians and enthusiasts.
Says Captain Luke, “I got to meet a photographer from Germany; a man who owns a lobster business in Maine; got to play with Cool John Ferguson, Jerry ‘Boogie’ McCain and Taj Mahal.”
Similarly, Taj Mahal relates, “I have been able to meet and play with Cora Mae Bryant, Macavine Hayes, Neil ‘Big Daddy’ Pattman, Cootie Starks, John Dee Holman, Captain Luke, Whistlin’ Britches–all of these people that have contributed to the history of such incredible music. I think that Music Maker is the blueprint of what needs to be done with anybody interested in indigenous music in any country–developed or otherwise. They have raised the bar. This is a way to make sure that these people, who have devoted their lives to developing their talent, get recorded, recognized, and have the chance to live in a respectful way.”
Members of the Music Maker Relief Foundation–recipient artists, devotees, and donors–stay connected through an annual get-together at the Duffys’ home in Hillsborough.
Tim and Denise Duffy have been busy transforming their seven-acre homestead into a multi-purpose music center of sorts. A renovated barn now doubles as a recording studio and administrative office. They’ve built a residential cottage for visiting artists and a storage facility where they plan to archive photographs and recordings and display Tim’s collection of guitars and folk art.
As a living testament to Tim’s promise to Guitar Gabriel, the Music Maker Relief Foundation currently provides grants and service programs for more than 100 traditional Southern artists, such as Algia Mae Hinton of Johnston County and John Dee Holman of Durham. Recipients must be rooted in a Southern musical tradition, 55 years or older and have an annual income less than $18,000 (many of their annual incomes barely scratch $6,000). Last year more than $300,000 was raised, largely through private donations. Most of the money was paid out directly to the artists in the form of grants, which allow them to play and record at Duffy’s retreat.
“An artist sometimes needs a period of time when the phone is not ringing and the toils of everyday existence aren’t pressing on their minds,” Duffy says. “Here, they can have a space and freedom to be creative. We envision a roadside attraction where people come and explore documentary exhibits, have a meal and see a live performance. We wish for everyone to experience the art of these great unsung heroes of Southern music.”
“Yeah, a lot of people came up to me today and said, ‘I saw you on TV’,” boasts Captain Luke. The local news channel, Fox 8, out of High Point interviewed him about his recently released Music Maker CD Outsider Lounge Music.
“That makes you feel good when people recognize you like that,” agrees Hayes. “The other night I played my guitar out there by the store for an hour and a half. I was surprised to see all of the young people. I think that they are finally getting into it. That way the blues will never die.”
“We used to play all night long–me, Captain and Gabriel,” reflects Hayes. “We’d have a street full of people listening while we sang the blues.”
“Guitar Gabriel used to say, ‘If you are walking down the street and the blues hits you, you stop, pick up a reed of grass, and blow you a little tune to go along with it,’” reflects Captain Luke. “That Gabriel was something.”