NEW YORK — Until a few years ago, the world was unfamiliar with Cootie Stark. Blind for most of his life and living in a housing project in Greenville, S.C., he played music primarily on the streets, sharing the songs he learned from the bluesmen who came before him. He might have disappeared like they did if a young producer named Tim Duffy hadn't met him in 1995. It wasn't long before the 68-year-old had a new guitar and the first CD bearing his name.
To the artists Mr. Duffy works with, he is a man with solutions. Need to be warm? He'll buy a heating stove. Need to play? He'll find a guitar. He books tours and pays medical bills, arranges transportation and tombstones. Most of all, he makes sure that his ever-expanding roster of older musicians are able to carry on with an American musical tradition.
Out of a building next to his home in Hillsborough, N.C., Duffy and a tiny staff, including his wife and co-founder, Denise, run the Music Maker Relief Foundation, where they carry out their motto: "Keeping the bluest of the blues alive."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the organization, which has channeled $2.5 million through its programs and helped 108 artists over age 55. Along the way the group has collected fans in the recording industry such as Eric Clapton, Moby, B.B. King, and Bonnie Raitt. Several are on the group's advisory board, while others, such as Taj Mahal - who calls the blues an "aquifer" that nourishes modern music - are members of its board of directors.
Even with the attention, raising money and distributing CDs are among the biggest challenges for the nonprofit group, which helps musicians from West Virginia to Nevada. To Duffy, his work is about saving and documenting a vital part of US culture - and treating the people who make it like family. "These people have given so much to an industry that has created billions of dollars off their musical traditions," he says by phone. "Why can't we pay back something?"
Duffy's passion for helping these "living roots" of American music was ignited back in 1989, when he was a graduate student in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was documenting the work of James "Guitar Slim" Stephens, who told him to look up another bluesman, Guitar Gabriel. Duffy then encountered one artist after another - all part of a tradition he had been told hardly existed anymore. "I realized there was this whole hidden world," he says.
Appalled by the choices many of the musicians had to make each month - between food or medicine, rent or the car - Duffy drove them to the grocery store, to pay bills, and to get to welfare lines, while trying to book them gigs, record their music, and swing record deals. It was a new model for maintaining the blues community, where only a few, like B.B. King, have made a living off their music.
"Tim has really worked individually with these people," says Taj Mahal, who has produced, recorded, and toured with Music Maker musicians. "Beyond just him seeing them as artists, he's seeing them as people and [has] sought to stabilize their lives so they can continue doing the great things that they're doing."
One recipient is guitarist Etta Baker. Now in her 90s, she's been playing since she was 3. "He is just wonderful," she says of Duffy, who has provided her with money and free CDs of her music to sell to help pay for food and medical bills. "I don't know how I'd ever have [paid] these high doctor bills if it hadn't been for Tim," Ms. Baker says.
"Just sitting down talking to Tim, it showed me where I was losing a lot by just not trying," she says, of Duffy's encouraging her to keep recording CDs.
At first, some of the artists were skeptical. "For some reason, I didn't trust him," says Carl Rutherford, who lives in Caretta, W.Va., and specializes in mountain music. When Duffy showed up at his door with recording equipment a decade ago, Mr. Rutherford allowed Duffy to record his songs, but didn't fully cooperate. "I didn't sing the song all the way through, you know, I was hanging on to some of it."
Duffy says that over the years, artists were sometimes approached by people who wanted to record them, but never returned with a finished product. Today, Duffy has people calling from around the US for assistance. Those they help have an annual income of under $18,000, and the average is about $6,000 a year.
"He's helped me in so many different ways," says Rutherford, who is in his mid-70s. "He'll find out through the grapevine or wherever that I'm having trouble meeting the expenses of about $635 worth of drugs a month.... And he'll send me a check and help me with that."
"He's just plum full of love and he spreads it all over the place," he adds.
Duffy's arranged for the musicians to perform overseas and in such venues as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. "We develop these artists," he explains. "We met Cootie when was 68 and now he's 77, he's a much better artist than he was at 68. They get better."
Music Maker sold about 10,000 albums through its website, musicmaker.org, and direct mail last year. The Duffys are discussing a possible partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that would allow their operation to grow. Music Maker is a model that could benefit other forms of American music - native American, Hispanic - and is already expanding beyond the blues, say those tracking it.
"[These genres] don't sell a lot of records. But they're very significant. They reflect working-class American values, the struggles of men and women to make a living, and they voice that world within their music," says William Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC. "It's potentially a model that could extend in a very powerful way throughout our nation."