“We Are the Music-Makers” exhibit recognizes Blues pioneers

“The Music Makers” exhibit at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center is an inspirational collection of photos, stories and folk art that celebrates the musicians who gave birth to the blues in our country; specifically, in the central and deep South.  These musicians, many of them elderly, have been living in obscurity.  Thanks to the efforts of the Music Makers Foundation, these artists are receiving support and well-deserved recognition for their roles in creating and nurturing blues music – a national treasure and musical heritage.

The exhibit’s stories and photos are poignant and raw; the people depicted are poetic, original, proud.  Viewers are offered unique insights into the lives of dozens of folk artists who gave birth to and raised up blues music.  Intimate stories and pictures of people like Sam ‘Polka Dot’ McMillan, Mother Pauline, Little Freddie King, Boo Hanks, Captain Luke adorn the walls of two galleries and evoke a range of emotions.  A documentary of live interviews and music adds to the experience.  The Music Makers exhibit is a must-see for every serious blues music fan hereabouts.

From their website: “The 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.”

Tidewater Arts Outreach presented a group blues music appreciation and songwriting program for older adults on June 13.  It was the last of a series of four programs, where we’ve engaged participants with clay, paint and print-making.  On this day Hampton singer/songwriter and guitarist Otis Brooks and singer/multi-instrumentalist MaryAnn Toboz led a discussion, performance and mini song-writing session.  The group of a dozen adults first talked about what words the exhibit evoked.  “Integrity.”  “Dialect.” “Disability.”  “Harmony.”  “Wailing.”   To amplify on traditional topics of the blues genre, Otis and MaryAnn performed Rabo Tarant’s “Blues With a Feeling,” Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightening.”

“What is ‘Walkin’ Blues’ about?  What does Howlin’ Wolf mean when he sings “Can’t you hear me crying?” 

Celebrating and digging into the blues with older adults is rewarding; they are no strangers to the blues in real life.  They also are close to the era being portrayed and have an enhanced appreciation for the people adn the times.  We wrote a song together about growing old and wanting to remain vital that riffed off of Staples Sisters “Reach Out and Touch a Hand” and included these lines:

“We can all use a friend; you just open up and let them in.

Step out and find them where they are; open your heart and there you are.”

Friends, indeed.  The friendships created by Blues Maker Foundation have no doubt been transformational for most, if not all of the musicians involved.    The Foundation provides artists with support that ranges from instruments to royalties to food, clothes and medical services.  The Foundation arranges national and international tours to share these artists with new audiences.

That’s something to sing about.