Timothy Duffy was born 14 March 1963 in New Haven, Conn. In 1981, he moved to Swannanoa, N.C. to study at Warren Wilson College where he began recording local musicians at picking parties as a work-study participant with the Appalachian Music Program. As a novice guitar player, Duffy began to play in the mountain music tradition. Ten years later, Duffy transformed his interest into a thesis project and returned to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to interview and photograph the musicians at the Greene Acres picking party.
In 1983, Timothy Duffy moved to Kenya where he completed his undergraduate degree in 1987 at Friends World College. While in Africa, he apprenticed under Swahili songster and oud virtuoso Zein Al-Abdein; produced field recordings of children's music, street songsters, and dance rituals; conducted interviews of Mombasa men living in poverty; and researched the belief of the jin in Swahili society.
Duffy began recording blues artists in 1989 during his last semester of study for a master's degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He documented James Guitar Slim Stephens, an old blues rounder for the Southern Folklife Collection. in the 1920s and 30s, Slim played around the United States and introduced Duffy to blues artists around his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. Within a year, Slim was overcome by cancer and on his deathbed urged Duffy to seek out an old friend, Guitar Gabriel.
Timothy Duffy found Guitar Gabriel (Gabe) at Piedmont Circle, a housing project in Winston-Salem. Duffy and Gabe became friends and business partners. During the next few years, they played at clubs and festivals throughout the Southeast, traveled to Europe, and performed at Carnegie Hall. When not performing, they looked up the many old performers that Gabe knew. Willa Mae Buckner, a snake handler, traveled as a tent-show performer, played piano and guitar, danced the chorus line, and was a strip-tease artist in the 1950s and 1960s. Cootie Stark played from the Piedmont Blues tradition on street corners and pizza joints until the Music Maker Relief Fund (MMRF) began recording his music in the mid-1990s. Amongst the audio selections is a reunion between Guitar Gabriel and his sister, Lucille Lindsay, recorded in her nursing home; it finds them sharing songs long forgotten.
Timothy Duffy made recordings of these old, sometimes ailing and disabled performers. He was astounded by the economic choices the old performers had to make among food, rent, medicine, and other expenses. in 1993, with the help of Mark Levinson, an audio pioneer in New York, the concept for the Music Maker Relief Fund was born. Around the time of Gabe's death in 1996, musical figures such as Eric Clapton, B. B. King, and Taj Mahal began supporting the endeavors of the MMRF. Today over 100 southern roots musicians, such as Precious Bryant, Willa Mae Buckner, Joe Lee Cole, and Neal Pattman have had their financial burdens eased and their music recorded and promoted through the MMRF. Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America was published by Hill Street Press in 2002; this 194-page book contains black-and-white photographs, a music compilation CD, and information about the foundation and many of its recipients. As of the fall 2003 issue, nine volumes of the Music Maker Rag: The Official Newsletter of the Music Maker Relief Foundation have been produced under the direction of Timothy and Denise Duffy.
Many of the recipients come to MMRF in their final years. The interviews and recording sessions are, in many cases, the only recordings of these musicians, who made a living playing in drink houses and on the streets. Timothy Duffy, along with his wife Denise, traveled with a mobile recording studio from Virginia to Mississippi to interview and record the music from the southern roots traditions of R& B, blues, and gospel. MMRF is located in Hillsborough, N.C., and houses a recording studio and a guesthouse available for the MMRF residency program. Timothy Duffy lives and works with Denise in Hillsborough at the MMRF location. They have two children, Lucas and Lilla.
From the guide to the Timothy Duffy Collection, 1990-2004, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Folklife Collection.)
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