Before the Internet, learning a song took real effort. You had to say a melody by ear, find someone to teach you, or study a songbook. For mere mortals without perfect pitch or readily available mentors, getting your hands on sheet music or guitar tabs was like striking gold, opening up a whole new vein of musical possibilities, long before detailed YouTube lessons and instructional apps. note by note.
The best collections of classic songs, those of Carl Sandburg The American Songbagjazz is coveted The real bookor focused voices Get up singing– also conveyed folk wisdom and historical context alongside piano notations and vocal melodies. This global spirit is captured by Deep in the South: A Songbook for Music Makers. Released September 20, the 89-page book features 27 different songs, combining guitar tablature and lyrics with captivating biographies, musicological footnotes and evocative photos.
In keeping with the mission of the Music Maker Foundation, the non-profit cultural organization based in Hillsborough, the 18 artists featured in Deep in the south are lesser-known blues, folk, and gospel innovators whose expertise deserves special consideration.
From Piedmont to Atlanta, to the hills of Mississippi and downriver to New Orleans, Music Maker founder Timothy [Tim] Duffy, famed journalist Chuck Reece and guitarist Earle Pughe dive deep into the lives of Etta Baker, Guitar Gabriel, Beverly Watkins and Little Freddie King, as well as hidden Triangle heroes like John Dee Holeman and Preston Fulp.
The trip advances Southern folklore and adds another vital entry in the pantheon of great American songbooks. Before the release of the book, INDY Week spoke with Reece and Duffy about the new project. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
INDY WEEK: Tim, how did the original idea for this book come about?
Tim Duffy: My friend Earle Pughe is a guitarist and teacher in Boston. He wanted to transcribe some of Music Maker’s songs so he could teach them in class. He had the idea and the vision – it just took me four years to figure out how to do it.
Which makes Deep in the south come out?
TD: If you look at a lot of country-blues books, they always include the same people: Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Robert Johnson. It’s the same collection of songs. It’s great, you have to keep these songs alive. But no one expanded it. Etta Baker’s songs in Deep in the south are not well known. But they are beautiful, intricate pieces. So Earle had the transcripts, and then we brought in Chuck Reece, who founded The bitter southerner and recently started Hi South, to edit the book. It tells the stories of the artists. When you look at each chapter you get an idea of who they are, as well as a selection of my photographs, many of which were taken here in North Carolina.
And a sophisticated insight into the musicality of these artists.
TD: Exactly. If you’re a music buff, when you read what Earle writes about how John Dee Holeman raises the seventh flat, it puts his genius in musicological terms. Dizzy Gillespie often said that jazz is American classical music and blues is American folk music. There are these secret chords – these tiny little notes – which are ancient sounds. Now they are transcribed so other people can learn them.
Chuck, what attracted you to the project?
CHUCK REECE: It was really rewarding to delve into so much of the musical landscape. Music Maker exists to seek out the unsung heroes of American music. They go deep. And to understand the South, you have to go deeper into what has built our culture. Richard Murff describes it as an okra: “His father was a West African stew, his mother a French bouillabaisse.” The culture of the South is this mixture of the culture of the slaves and the culture of the people who enslaved them. So many great things have come out of this intersection. You can see that in the variety of artists in this book, including a guy like Benjamin Tehoval, who is French. When you hear him play the blues, it sounds like he’s from here.
TD: I love that we put Benjamin in the book. The Europeans are very important for the blues. There’s a thought in America that maybe the blues are gone. But that’s only because he’s out of white sight, right in front of you. That’s why we do this kind of systematic work, finding interesting musicians and recording them so that they can be seen by people outside their micro-communities.
Artists from all over the South are featured here. What binds them all together?
TD: How authentic and truthful they are. Their musicality, the catchiness of their melodies. It is deceptively simple. Everyone wants to play all the notes up and down the neck of the guitar. It’s actually easier than playing three to four notes that someone will remember. When you listen to Etta Baker or Precious Bryant, their music is so serene and beautiful. There’s a warmth to that. It’s not super technical. Robert “Wolfman” Belfour plays a riff over and over. John Dee Holeman played as Lightnin’ Hopkins. Lightnin’ saw John Dee in Durham a few years before he died and said, “You get it.” That’s how good these artists are.
In the introduction to Deep in the southGuitar Gabriel says, “You won’t find the blues in the notes or on paper.”
TD: It’s true. You have to live the blues. It’s a way of life that requires dedication. But this book is the gateway – hopefully an overview that will help you learn the necessary elements.
The book also feels utilitarian – affordable, spiral-bound, easy to flip through.
CR: This is a book made for guitarists first and foremost. Our dream is that Deep in the south will be propped up on a music stand or placed on a coffee table, wherever you are playing. That’s where he belongs. If it stands the test of time, is chipped and stained, and has notes written 20 years from now, then it’s a success.
What defines success for you, Tim?
TD: It’s not a $60 book like blue museso i hope many people will buy it [laughs]. But it’s really about realizing that this music is there. It sounds archaic, but it’s not antique. It is constantly evolving and changing. It’s a deep well that the artists of Music Maker draw from. It is America’s aquifer. And everyone can find it! It is not a technical, mystical or difficult thing. The blues is there for you. Don’t get lost in technique. If you can play with genuine feeling and make people happy and feel human, that’s success. It’s universal.
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