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Twenty Years Of Keeping The Blues Alive

This weekend, a group of aging blues artists gathered in North Carolina to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Music Maker Relief Foundation — a group that preserves the South’s rich musical traditions.

Many of the state’s blues musicians live in poverty and have trouble getting to the gigs they need to make a living.  You can track the changes that North Carolina has experienced over the years through the stories and music of two men.

“I’m Luther Mayer. I’m also known as Captain Luke. My voice get down so low it’ll untie your shoestrings. That’ll give you a problem tying them back up.”

Captain Luke is 86 years old, and I barely saw him without a cigarette in his mouth. He wears a captain’s hat, an accessory he picked up years ago working in a Winston-Salem drink house. A paisley tie is in a knot around his neck. For Captain Luke,the music started early.

“I’ve been singing since I was 14 years old out in the cotton field playing with my uncle, following him all day in the field playing,” Captain Luke says. “He blew the harmonica. And he sung. And I was right behind him barefoot as a yard dog.”


On that farm, Luther’s uncle had a mule that worked along with them. His name was Buck.

“I just made up a song about him and King Bee,” Captain Luke says. “You’d see the little bees flying around the flowers and stuff. And I thought I could make a song out of clear blue like that.”

Captain Luke is part of a group called the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which celebrated an anniversary over the weekend. For 20 years, Music Maker has been helping musicians pay a heating bill, or a doctor’s bill. It’s also a record company, run by Tim Duffy, that gives the artists work.

“When I met Tim that was the best part of my life because I got to go somewhere,” Captain Luke says.

Captain Luke started his touring in his sixties: “Salisbury. Highpoint. Little places like that you know, then we started getting other gigs,” he says. “Atlanta, Georgia. Switzerland. France. German. Argentina. He started getting gigs for us. I was having fun then. I hadn’t been nowhere good.”

Music Maker founder Tim Duffy says the organization’s mission is both to preserve Southern music –much of which he says is not recorded — and financially help out many blues musicians, who live on between $4,000 and $7,000 a year.

“These types of archaic music forms are always on the edge and they’re not very celebrated, and it’s very much a social justice thing,” Duffy says . “We’re crossing lines of race and poverty and trying to reach out. So it’s in danger of not being heard, of not being captured.”

But today, it will be captured. Another man – with deep-set eyes and a dark moustache — sits down with Duffy and Captain Luke.

“My real name is James. You call me James Boo Hanks. Boo Hanks is a stage name.”


And where does Boo come from?

“I don’t know,” Boo says. “When I was a little boy, they said, ‘Boo come here and do that!’ Don’t ask me, I don’t know.”

Boo started playing gigs when he was 79 years-old.

“I feel good when I’m playing,” Boo says. “When the audience enjoys it, when it looks like they’re enjoying it I feel good.”

Boo Hanks still lives on a farm just over the North Carolina line in Virginia. His father played guitar before Boo Hanks even knew what a guitar was. He says music was a gift to him, from God.

“He told me, ‘If I give you a talent and you don’t use it, I’ll take it away and give it to somebody else,’” Boo says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Boo Hanks lives on the North Carolina-Virginia border. He started touring with the Music Makers Relief Foundation in his late 70s. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
Boo Hanks lives on the North Carolina-Virginia border. He started touring with the Music Makers Relief Foundation in his late 70s. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

Peter O'Dowd
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