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A music maker sings the coronavirus blues


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: singing the coronavirus blues, if you will.

Jeffrey Brown revisits a musician who has met many challenges with song in the past, and now confronts one that is quite personal.

The story is part of our ongoing American Creators series on rural arts and Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Outside the Citadel nursing home in Salisbury, North Carolina, an uplifting one-woman performance.

The singer, 63-year-old blues musician Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen.

Pat Cohen: There's been like a huge outbreak of the coronavirus. And everybody's in their rooms. And everybody is afraid.

And I want to do something that's going to brighten up somebody's day. And in brightening somebody else's day, it brightens my day also.

Woman: The citadel in Salisbury now considered the site of an outbreak.

Jeffrey Brown: The nursing home is the scene of one of North Carolina's worst outbreaks of COVID-19.

Health officials say the 160-bed facility has had more than 150 confirmed cases among residents and staff, one of the residents, Pat Cohen's 59-year-old brother, George. He first went into the home two years ago after suffering a stroke.

He's not been diagnosed with COVID, but is mostly confined to his bed, and watches his sister perform through the window.

Pat Cohen: My brother used to help me with my equipment that he would carry it to my car for me. And he was -- I could always depend on him.

So I'm doing the same thing for him.

Jeffrey Brown: We first met Pat Cohen in 2014 at a gathering in Durham of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that's supported more than 400 blues musicians around the South, mostly African-American, often rural, people like Ironing Board Sam, who briefly reached the spotlight, but never made it big, and eked out a living playing small clubs and busking on the streets.

Music Maker helps these musicians meet basic needs and, for some, has gotten them back to performing paying gigs.

Now, founder Tim Duffy says, the shows have stopped. The fear is real.

Tim Duffy: They're scared.

When you live -- like, an average check is like $600 to $800 a month, sometimes as low as $400 a month. All the artists that we are working with, a lot of them are between 75 and 85 and have diabetes. They're highly intelligent.

And so, like, they will tell me, if I make a mistake, I might die, if I touch the wrong thing. So, they're being very, very careful. But that's a lot of pressure to live under.

Jeffrey Brown: A lot of artists and arts organizations are now looking to new models, like streaming...

Tim Duffy: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: ... as a way to stay connected, also to possibly raise funds.

Is that sort of thing possible for you and these artists?

Tim Duffy: It's possible, but there's a great digital divide. They're elderly. They don't know how to use the devices. A lot of places are in rural communities that don't have the best Internet, so we can't do that.

Jeffrey Brown: Pat Cohen was once a regular on the New Orleans scene. She lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, along with her professional connections.

Music Maker helped her relocate to North Carolina and pick up her career. She was scheduled to perform at Jazz Fest earlier this month, in fact, and in Portugal later on. But now all the gigs are gone, the money not coming in.

Pat Cohen: If all you do is sing or play an instrument, or whatever it is, you don't know what you're going to do, because, after this is over, if it's ever over -- you wonder if it's ever going to be over.

You don't know how things are going to change. And you know it's going to change. Will there ever be live concerts again?

Jeffrey Brown: She used to be paid to perform inside the nursing home. Now there's just singing outside to lift up her brother and others.

Music Maker's Tim Duffy says it's another example of why the musicians he's worked with for 25 years deserve our respect and help.

Tim Duffy: She just keeps on going.

And now she literally has very little money. And she gets up the gumption to go out and sing for them and do something to help others with what she has. She has joy in her heart. She has music. And I think, in times of crisis, we look for our folk musicians to guide us. That's their role. They're bards.

Jeffrey Brown: Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen puts it this way:

Pat Cohen: Everybody has a currency, and everybody's currency is different. My currency is my voice.

You don't have to do what I do, but do something nice for somebody else. And that makes you feel good. And that's contagious by itself.

Jeffrey Brown: Blues, both sad and joyful, now comforting others in a time of pandemic.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And singing to her brother, that is special.

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