By Ron Wray
An evening that will grab your soul is coming to Portsmouth at 7 p.m., May 2 with an iconic performance of the legendary Blues Maker Blues Review at Roger Brown’s Restaurant and Sports Bar on downtown High Street. It is a production of Virginia Arts Festival and Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center. Featured musicians include Pat Mother Blues Cohen, Cool John Ferguson, the Branchettes, and a extraordinary backup band of other Music Makers.
Companion inspiration continues just down the street through June 9 in an exhibit of tintype-like photos, musical instruments, original works of art, video performances, and artifacts of/belonging to/made by masters and mistresses of American blues, assembled by Music Maker and mounted and added to at the Portsmouth show by PACC Curator Gayle Paul.
Her work on the exhibit included trips to collect works from the Music Maker historic collection in North Carolina. The exhibit and performance follow-up on the success of a sold-out performance last year by another group of Blues Makers, some repeating this year, and a related exhibit.
The current exhibit “Our Living Past: A Platinum Portrait of Music Makers” features photos by Timothy Duffy, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation. “The Music Maker Blues Revue” is the performing arm of Music Maker Relief Foundation.
Duffy’s collection of images was made with wet-plate collodion photography and printed with the platinum/palladium process, leading to dramatic, historic-looking photos that look like they came from a couple of centuries ago.
Revue performers will include some of the finest and most iconic musicians assembled by Blues Maker, a group charismatic and performance savvy, seasoned by many years of devotion to their blues craft and artisan-ship. These are some of the patriarchs and matriarchs of American blues, along with some younger blues veterans.
Returning from last year, the towering and handsome patriarch bluesman Cool John Ferguson gave at that show one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen in a lifetime of following blues. Many of the Blues Makers got lost in the shuffle over the years in terms of attention and support. Thankfully, they have now been resurrected, so to speak, by Tim Duffy and his crew, with the artists now performing countrywide. Their artworks, photos and other documentation are receiving similar exposure and acclaim. Taj Mahal, interviewed in a Time Magazine article said, these works do not tread on “people’s dignity,” but instead evoke the spirit of an era. Photos include portraits of blues performers Little Freddie King, Alabama Slim, Capt. Luke Mayer, Appalachian fiddler Martha Spencer, and luthier Freeman Vines.
This year, happily, the dudes will be joined by women Blues Makers, including the soulful, dynamic lady of the blues, Pat Mother Blues Cohen, as captivating visually as she is musically, with dramatic looks and sound that mirror other great female blues performers from Kansas City to Chicago to Memphis.
These performers also bring the local and regional connection of the African American musical contributions and beginnings in Virginia’s Appalachian mountains, the Bristol, Virginia, roots/blues recordings, and the legendary Norfolk Attucks Theater blues and jazz performances, continuing through the Discovery Blues Series of a few years ago and Virginia Arts Festival jewels like last year’s Rhiannon Giddens performance.
“Twenty-five years ago this week, Tim and Denise Duffy founded in North Carolina the Music Marker Relief Foundation, an organization dedicated not only to finding the unheard music of countless blues, old-time, and gospel musicians, but also to ensuring those musicians get the economic support they need to survive. They refer to these musicians as “partners.” They get them gigs. They make the arrangements. They record and release albums the artists can sell anywhere they play. And if one has a water heater break down, for example, Music Maker picks up the check,” wrote Chuck Reese in his article “Searching for High John” in The Bitter Southerner.
Elsewhere in the article, Duffy is quoted, saying, “Gabe told me that blues will never die. It’s a spirit. He told me that when the slaves were here, they took the drums away from them. They tried to do everything systematically to destroy them, and it still goes on. It’s like when I read ‘High John the Conquer’ by Zora Neale Hurston, I believe it literally is a spirit that came from Africa that is here.”
It is a multi-racial effort, as the Blues Makers, while predominately African American artists, also include a number of white and other artists ranging in age and backgrounds. Their commonality exists in their talent and their under-acknowledged importance to the art form.
Virginia Arts Festival has reported that tickets are going fast to the performance, but at last check, seats were still available.
The exhibit may be seen through June 9 by visiting the Portsmouth Cultural Arts Center at 400 High Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. The live music performance is at 7 p.m., May 2 at Roger Brown’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, 316 High St., Portsmouth. Call 757-393-8543 for more details.