Keeping the Bluest of the Blues Alive

For those whose professional lives are spent in or around politics there is often a yearning for something that unifies.  This, because even at its best politics is a science of division, where people are separated – by class, philosophy, interest, geography – into voting blocs.

This yearning helps explain the extraordinary popularity, in Washington, of the Redskins, one of the very few interests in the nation’s capital around which people of every belief can and do rally.  Art is another such interest – where, that is, it is innocent of overt political manipulation.

So it is, for some of us, with blues music, the musical form created by African-Americans in the South in the late 1800s, and which has contributed so much to jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Reference is often made to particular genres or styles of blues music – such as the Delta, Piedmont, or Chicago blues – but in the opinion of one who has studied this matter closely, the reality is a little more complex.  The truth, according to Tim Duffy, is that the music played even by musicians who are said to be of a certain style is highly individualistic, a fact that takes on a special poignancy given the advanced age of so many of these musicians, many of whom have never even been recorded and who live, in their old age, in poverty.

In an effort to assist these people, and to preserve and promote their music, Duffy and his wife, Denise, formed the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) in 1994.  Sporting the motto, “keeping the bluest of the blues alive,” MMRF assists in myriad ways: by providing everyday living expenses for some, and by recording and arranging for promotional tours, here and abroad, for others.

A perfect example of what a national treasure is at stake can be found in the life and music of the late Etta Baker.  The woman whom NPR referred to as the “world’s premier Piedmont-style blues guitarist,” Baker played the guitar and banjo from age 3 until her death, a few years back, at 93.  Her skill and renown notwithstanding, it wasn’t until 1991, when Etta was 78, that her own first (authorized) recording was released.  You can listen to some of her works, available on the MMRF website, here.

On Oct. 15, The Media Institute will host its 18th annual Friends & Benefactors Awards Banquet.  As we always do on such occasions, we are going to recognize the good works of some people in government and the media.  But this year we are also going to salute the Music Maker Relief Foundation, for the role they play in advancing and preserving this uniquely American form of speech.