Edom Wessenyeleh '17
Tucker Foundation Office Assistant
Major: Geogrpahy, Pre-Health
Hometown: Boston, MARead the full interview
For eleven weeks this fall, I served as a social work intern for the Music Maker Relief Foundation. In this paper, I hope to shed some light on the story of how I found myself working there and on the wonderful experience I had during my time at Music Maker.
Last winter vacation, my mom and I took a road trip to spend some quality time together. We drove all the way to Florida and back. It was a great experience and the two of us really bonded. Our southbound route took us through Macon, GA, where we decided to stop and check out the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. We spent hours looking at exhibits and listening to an eclectic array of music. One incident remains fixed in my memory.
I remember leaning to a listening station, flipping on a disc called Blues Came to Georgia, and standing spell-bound as the haunting melody and ethereal crooning of Guitar Gabriel singing "Let No Woman" filled my ears. I forgot to breathe for a few moments, it was so captivating. The first track was followed by myriad others equally stunning and equally beautiful. There was Cootie Stark laying down a swinging blues number called "Send you Back to Georgia;" Precious Bryant plucking and strumming an utterly rare reading of "Fever;" Essie Mae Brooks singing a soul-stirring a-cappella tune called "Rain in your Life;" and James Davis casting out a hypnotic, honking guitar piece driven by the forward thrust of a single snare drum. And these just to name a few. Who were these wonderful musicians and how could learn more about them? I was intrigued.
As Mom and I were perusing the gift shop, I came across a book with photos and stories of traditional musicians in it called Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America. Each page was like a fleeting insight into the life of a forgotten past. And yet these were living artists! Rapt in silent fascination, I turned every leaf as if gazing upon a well-kept, long-hidden mystery. One of the store attendants saw me leafing through the pages and came over to me. She told me that I was holding a very special book, the work of Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping older blues artists who had fallen on hard times in the region and beyond. "Why don't you give them a call?" she said. "You never know when they could use some help from a college student." My imagination was piqued. Mom and I left to get lunch at a soul food joint up the road.
Learning, composing and performing music has been an enduring passion in my life. I started playing the trumpet when I was ten. Two years later, I discovered the guitar and, feeling a mysterious affinity for the instrument, I stuck with it. During times of change and uncertainty, I found that banging on the steel-strung wooden box was a remarkably effective way to turn the strains of daily life into the stuff of creative transcendence of those selfsame tensions and pressures. And yet, there was very little music in my family growing up. My mom is profoundly hearing-impaired and my dad … let's just say my musical faculties probably didn't come from him. Where did this impulse to create come from? And what could I learn from others who were driven by a similar passion?
I returned to school that winter with a growing feeling that this foundation was where I wanted to spend my leave term. So I decided to give the folks at Music Maker a call. I was happy to learn they could use an intern for a few months. Thanks to Dartmouth's idiosyncratic quarter system, I was able to take off the following fall. Little by little, threads seemed to be weaving together. Then, like a network of well-placed dominoes, things just fell into place one after the other. I found a good living arrangement, came up with a rough set of goals and applied for funding from Dartmouth's service wing, Tucker Foundation, receiving recognition as a Dartmouth Partners in Community Service intern.
As a member of the DPCS program, I was put in touch with a family that lived near the place of my internship and had Dartmouth connections. The McKelvys were to become mentors and special friends during my stay in the South. During the next eleven weeks, we had a wonderful time getting to know each other better. We often had dinner together and they even invited me to Thanksgiving with their family. In times of tension at work, Michael and Marian were supportive friends. They lent me their ears and offered helpful advice on how to deal with challenging situations in the workplace. Moreover, they were always eager to hear the new stories of what was happening each week during my time at Music Maker. Through the frequent ups and rare downs, they were by my side to share in the experiences and stories along the way.
I arrived at my new home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, on the second day of October, 2004. My address was 1512 Borland Road. I was pleasantly surprised to come upon a gravelly unpaved driveway leading deep into the woods astride the main road. After a bit of hard traveling, I wound around a turn to approach a brickwork entryway with wrought iron gates. My residence was a carriage house studio apartment adjacent to a beautiful old 18th century style home. There was also a pretty patio where I would often sit and think in the sweet silence of solitude. Little to my knowledge, I had planted myself right smack in the middle of some of the nicest cycling country in the area. And while my home was in the still untouched countryside, I was also only twenty minutes away from three wonderful cities.
Living on my own proved to be a challenging yet valuable life experience. For a while I thought I could live on canned foods and a microwave alone. Lesson one: it's not that easy. I learned to greatly appreciate the goodness of a home-cooked meal, particularly because I was responsible for preparing all of my own food. Having to wash the dishes every night was not as sweet to my tastes. Nevertheless, I learned how to do it. I learned also how to arrive home exhausted from a long day of work, and still find it in myself to prepare a healthy dinner, do the dishes and somehow make time for the things I love, like reading, playing music and occasionally going for a run or a spin. This aspect of my trip forced me to confront sides of myself theretofore unexplored. But enough of living lone. What now of the enchanted place where I worked for so long in the fall?
Rooted in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Music Maker Relief Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to helping forgotten pioneers and unknown stewards of Southern musical traditions gain recognition for their work and meet their daily living needs. Music Maker supports the health and well being of these legendary artists, while providing them the opportunity to share their uniquely American music forms with the rest of the world. The foundation is driven to do this for the betterment of their lives and for the preservation our nation's culture.
Criteria for status as a recipient artist is that one be rooted in a Southern musical tradition, be over fifty-five years old and have an annual income under $18,000. Sadly, however, the average annual income of recipient artists is below $6,000. Music Maker's programs are threefold:
This program provides grants for basic life needs and emergency relief. For example, when George Higgs, a North Carolina Folk Heritage award winner, lost his home and many personal belongings to major flooding during hurricane Floyd, Music Maker provided funds for a new guitar and amplifier.
This program makes funds and resources available to musicians, creating career opportunities which would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Each week, the foundation welcomes artists to Music Maker's headquarters to discuss professional development and to record new music if they would like. Staff members also take trips to visit those recipients who can not afford the expense of traveling to the office.
This program supports the preservation and proliferation of American musical traditions. Over the years, Music Maker has made it possible for recipient artists to perform at festivals across the United States as well as around the world in places like France, Switzerland and Belgium. The foundation is currently planning a trip to bring a number of artists to Australia for performances during the spring of 2005.
My specific charge at Music Maker was to serve as a social work intern. Since this was a broadly defined role, I arrived with an open mind, ready to help out in any way the staff saw fit. At the same time, however, I had a specific set of goals I wished to accomplish during my stay there. As I understood it, one of my expectations was to engage regularly in one-on-one interactions with recipient artists. I could not wait to begin.
I worked at 4052 Summer Lane - end of the road. Music Maker's office was nestled next to the home of the couple who founded the organization ten years ago almost to the day of my arrival. Tim and Denise Duffy are two people I admire deeply for making a life together out of a love they shared for music and people. I learned lasting lessons from them and from my other colleagues about what it means to pursue a passion and to sustain it in the context of a professional work environment.
Interning at Music Maker was a valuable learning experience. This moment in my life marks the first time I found myself thrust into a nine-to-five work day. The experience was a distinct change from the life of a student to which I had become so accustomed. I was surrounded, however, by a wonderful staff unparalleled in their commitment to the foundation's mission (see Picture G). I felt quickly taken up in the bustling day-to-day activities ever humming around the office and acclimated in time to the new pace of life.
On a typical day, my responsibilities would range from making phone calls to recipient musicians, checking in to make sure everything was going alright for them; conducting interviews and editing articles for the Music Maker Rag, a seasonal newsletter; running errands to warehouses to pick up boxes of compact discs, apparel and other merchandise for shipment to retailers; calling radio stations, newspapers and magazines to see if they would take promotional material for a story or a review; packaging mailings; stamping envelopes; doing inventories; reorganizing the storage shed; you name it, I likely did it. And these just to name a few.
With so many responsibilities, day-to-day life in the office was not infrequently stressful. It was hard to know when a person was feeling hot or cold. One minute I would be doing everything right and the next minute it was all wrong. I was forced, therefore, by virtue of my colleagues' expectations of me in the context of a high-pressure environment, to become sensitive to the needs of others in working relationships. In the end, despite the occasionally challenging moments, I think I grew as a person as a result of my having to rise to the challenge of office culture. Along the way, I derived priceless lessons about the business of helping people.
One of my long-term goals was to find a way of mitigating the high cost of prescription medicines, a necessary burden for many older artists. Stemming from my experiences in the field and in the office, I started a grant to help cover the health and other sustentative expenses of recipient musicians. Although this was a small contribution, it engaged me in the process of fighting for a community that is otherwise ill-empowered to fight for itself. My experience at Music Maker thus showed me how an amateur passion can be transformed into a vocational commitment to public service impacting many lives.
In addition to learning about intricacies of running a successful nonprofit organization, I was given the unique opportunity to spend time with a number of recipient musicians. My travels took me across the cotton fields of Georgia, through the piedmonts of North Carolina and up into the mountains of West Virginia. I made recordings and wrote field notes for inclusion in the archives of the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC Chapel Hill's Wilson Library - one of the largest repositories of recorded music, sound heritage and related ephemera of the American South. Along the way, I befriended a number of very special folks and developed a deep appreciation for the fine art and dignity these people preserve in spite of challenging living conditions.
My first trip into the field was to visit Etta Baker at her home in Morganton, North Carolina. At 92 years old, Etta is one of the finest piedmont blues guitar and banjo instrumentalists who have ever lived. Of American-Indian, African-American and Scots-Irish decent, Etta is a person in whom a diverse range of musical traditions merge. She is also a kind-hearted soul, one of the most gracious and warm-spirited people you will ever meet. The mother of many children, she maintains a willfully bright outlook on life. "Mats," she once said to me. "Where there is music there is happiness. I believe that!"
Sadly, Etta is suffering from heart troubles related to old age and had undergone a blood transfusion a few days before my visit. I brought her some flowers, fiery yellowy-orange jenny mums, and she was just simply so pleased to have the company of a young person who was interested in spending time with her. While I didn't stay too long since I could see she needed rest, still, in our short time together the two of us shared in a wonderful conversation. I told her of my passion for playing music and she recounted to me stories of how she spent her years as a child listening to and learning the music her daddy played on fiddle, guitar and banjo. While she was feeling too weak to play any music that day, she asked me to play a song for her. I picked away at the first tune that came to my mind, and to this day I remember it as "Song for Etta." In later weeks, I would travel to see Etta again, happily to find her in good spirits and feeling so well that she wanted to play music together.
I returned from Morganton with a strong desire to visit more artists. Over the following weeks, I would intersperse long days at the office with long trips into the field. Looking back now, I find the time I spent with the people I met on these journeys to be the most fulfilling aspect of my internship. Not all the roads I would travel would be well-paved. In fact, some would be downright overgrown, ragged and precarious. A few of these roads, however, would lead to actualizations of who I am still yet to become. They are, that is to say, roads that beckon, roads I feel I will travel and retravel for years to come.
If my life up to this point had been tantamount to Summer Lane, then I had come to a crossroads. This fleeting place, this transitory passing moment in my life, then, marked a departure from that straight and narrow path of my life so far onto a highway that was as yet indistinct and altogether uncertain. It still is, although with each day that passes the sun shines through the dry dust ever more sharply, ever more keen. At its acutest angles, sometimes, I see an old man sitting there, at the break of noon, in a chair without arms with a guitar in his hands playing for the angels and the demons within and without.
As the end of my time on Summer Lane drew nigh, I felt bully strong pulls of melancholy at having to leave a way of life with which I had become strangely accustomed. The end of Summer Lane; it is a place, however, that I have learned to internalize. It will always be a part of who I am. One year after the road trip my mom and I took I now find myself reflecting on a time in my life come full circle, an experience that still seems part dream. It is poignant to think that if the two of us had decided to bypass a small museum in Macon, I may have never known about Music Maker. Fate, I suppose, would have things otherwise and that is alright with me. It was very special coincidence in my life, one for which I will always be thankful. And all things revolve around the end of Summer Lane.
Last Updated: 9/29/11