“Our Living Past” was an exhibit of photographs from Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. For more than 35 years, Duffy has immortalized Southern musical heroes and the world in which they live. The exhibit highlighted the question of how poverty, geography, and age limited the exposure of these artists, encouraging the widespread idea that the musical traditions they perform had “died out.”

These images were made with wet-plate collodion photography and printed with the platinum/palladium process. Duffy’s plates have been collected by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, the Morris Museum of Art, the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, and also by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

In conjunction with this exhibit, a special performance featuring musicians from the Music Maker program took place on Friday, February 24.

With the popular resurgence of Americana, blues and traditional music, the Music Maker Blues Revue artists serve as musical masters. The Music Maker Relief Foundation, a North Carolina based non-profit, was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it. It started by helping a small group of elderly blues musicians still performing the musical traditions of the 19th and early 20th century America. They lived in abject poverty but when offered help, they didn’t ask for money, they wanted a gig. This performance shined a light on a collective of these Southern folk musicians depicted in the accompanying photography exhibit displayed in the Norton Center foyer. They’ve busked on the sidewalks of High Point, NC, received standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, travelled from Argentina to Australia, Europe to Guatemala, and across the U.S. The Revue pleases all types of fans, from the “boogiers to the bookworms.”


“ …Duffy’s images have a timeless quality. One has to look hard for clues that bely their vintage appearance, if any are to be found at all. The lengthy process of making a tintype means Duffy might work all day for just four or five shots, greatly increasing the level of attention devoted to each one…Because there is no photographic negative with tintypes—the tintype itself is the source material—Duffy was, until recently, limited in his ability to exhibit the work. But a chance meeting with Steven Albahari, the publisher of literary art bookmakers 21st Editions, led to a partnership that will allow the images not only to be duplicated, but to be printed in an unusually beautiful photographic process…Because the platinum palladium process allows for one of the broadest tonal ranges in photographic printing, the end result seems to glow, its subject almost jarringly proximate. The ink becomes ingrained in the paper, rather than sitting on top of it, allowing for a depth uncharacteristic of the medium…Taj Mahal, a Grammy-winning blues musician who has known Duffy for more than two decades and recently posed for a tintype, credits Duffy’s work not just for its rich aesthetic quality, but for his genuine respect and affection for his subjects. ‘So many photographs of older bluesmen or African-Americans are more voyeuristic, as opposed to the energy of the people—what they do, what it is they’re into—coming across in the photograph,’ he tells TIME. But Duffy ‘never treads on people’s dignity.’”

– Eliza Berman, Time Magazine, Oct. 19, 2015

music maker relief foundation 300x61 - Our Living PastThe Music Maker Relief Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit, was founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time.  Music Maker will give future generations access to their heritage through documentation and performance programs that build knowledge and appreciation of America’s musical traditions.  Since its founding in 1994, the Foundation has assisted and partnered with over 300 artists, issued over 150 CDs and reached over a million people with live performance in over 40 states and 17 countries around the globe.

Music Maker started by helping a small group of blues musicians in Winston-Salem, NC including Guitar Gabriel, Willa Mae Buckner, Preston Fulp, Mr. Q, Macavine Hayes and others. In the early 1990’s, the organization was amazed to meet elderly artists still performing the musical traditions of the nineteenth and early 20th century America. Through humble efforts to secure bookings, record and promote their careers, these artists were soon performing on national stages at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, and first-rate European festivals. It became apparent very quickly that due to age, poverty and educational constraints, these elderly artists would need a strong support structure to perform their music beyond their home communities and be documented for posterity. Some generous music lovers offered to help and the Relief Foundation was formed. 

The musicians are rooted in the Southern musical traditions of blues, gospel, string band, and Native American. Programs are targeted to serve the most vulnerable musicians, those 55 years and older with incomes under $18,000 a year. The sad reality is that many of these musicians are scraping by on annual incomes of $7,000 to $10,000. The Foundation believes that when a musician is living under the stress of dire poverty, they cannot possibly concentrate on their music. So, the Musician Sustenance program provides grants to help with monthly bills for medicine, food and housing or with emergency funding in times of crisis.  Most of the artists carry on archaic musical traditions that have long been discarded by their own communities, and leave the musician feeling isolated and alone. But when these musicians were introduced to each other and the world through touring and other gatherings, they begin to form deep fellowship and become part of a new musical community. This inspires them to spend more time practicing and honing their craft.

our living past black 768x193 - Our Living Past

January – April 2017

This exhibit was free and open to the public 9 am – 4 pm Monday through Friday, as well as by appointment and when the Norton Center is open for concerts and related activities.