Lauderdale: Beaufort's Cool John Ferguson helps keep Southern roots music alive (+ video)

Beaufort native Cool John Ferguson is called one of the five greatest guitarists in the world.

He can produce a big sound onstage, but his quiet work behind the scenes may do more to preserve the common-man blues.

Ferguson started playing at age 3 with a Harmony hollow-body electric guitar turned upside down because he's left-handed. It was so big, they had to hand it to him after perching him in a chair.

As a child in the 1960s, he played with three of his seven sisters when The Ferguson Sisters performed on "Lowcountry Sing" on Channel 5 in Charleston.

At Beaufort High School, class of 1972, Ferguson played trumpet in the marching band and for the first time learned to read music.

He was raised to believe that all music was meant to praise the Lord. His father, Deacon John Wesley Ferguson, who died last year at 93, was for six decades head deacon at Beaufort New Church of Christ on Wilmington Street. He also had a beautiful baritone singing voice and played the bass drums.

His mother, Martha Jenkins Ferguson, was from St. Helena Island, where music held the Gullah culture together as much as smothered rice.

And it was there, at the Penn Center, where Ferguson was tracked down 20 years ago by a party on a mission from North Carolina -- Tim and Denise Duffy and bluesman Captain Luke.

The Duffys founded the Music Maker Relief Foundation to keep the unvarnished roots music of the South alive.

From that time, Ferguson has helped the nonprofit ensure that those "voices will not be silenced by poverty and time."

None of them are household names.

But in their community, blues guitarist Taj Mahal says, "Cool John Ferguson is among the five greatest guitarists in the world. He is a force to be reckoned with in the music industry. He is with the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhart."

'Unseen world'

The Music Maker Foundation, based in Hillsborough, N.C., is reminiscent of Alan Lomax.

But instead of making thousands of recordings of grassroots musicians, it tries to save the blues, one musician at a time.

"We give them money for heating oil, glasses and dentures, medical care, a bicycle, guitar strings," Tim Duffy said. "We've helped more than 300 musicians."

But what the old-timers the foundation has uncovered want most is a gig. They want to perform.

The foundation has helped produce 200 to 300 CDs for musicians, and gotten them gigs from juke joints to international blues festivals.

They go by names like Sweet Betty, Haskell "Whistlin' Britches" Thompson, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, Bishop Dready Manning, Dr. Dixon, Drink Small, Eddie Tigner, Essie Mae Brooks, "Pinetop" Perkins and Guitar Gabriel.

"It's an unseen world," Duffy said. "It needs to go from the dark to the light. It all comes from the South. It comes from the working-class community, poor people who play Saturday night in the club and Sunday morning in the church. Ninety-nine percent of the music has never been recorded or documented because there's no money in it.

"That's what I do."

All those voices and lives have been touched by the smooth strokes of Cool John Ferguson.

'Magical person'

Ferguson was one of the first musicians involved with the Music Maker Foundation.

He's not a recipient, but a giver. He helps the old-timers know their way around a recording studio, and he plays guitar, piano and drums on a lot of the CDs.

"I've never met anyone like Cool," Duffy said. "He has embraced the cause and helped us out a lot. He's a wizard. He can play anything -- mandolin, banjo. I've been around them all and no guitar player in the world can play the way he does and it never stops. It flows like a black river and he's totally relaxed without breaking a sweat. He's playing from the center of the earth. He's a healer. He's a magical person."

When I caught up with Ferguson this month, he was headed to Clyde's of Gallery Place in Washington, D.C., to play with Ironing Board Sam in a $100-per-ticket fundraiser for the foundation.

Next month, he'll be playing in the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia.

Ferguson was featured in a photographic essay called "Music Makers" by Jimmy Williams of Raleigh, N.C., which was picked up by Garden & Gun magazine online.

He's still producing CDs, and he's featured in the "We Are the Music Makers" book and CD set to mark the foundation's 20th anniversary.

When Burton native "Smokin'" Joe Frazier died in 2011, the wails of Ferguson's guitar sent an electric version of "The Star Spangled Banner" over the river at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

Ferguson is now working out of Atlanta, playing in two churches each Sunday. He plays a Hammond B3 organ at 10 a.m. and a Roland keyboard at 1 p.m. His repertoire includes blues, jazz, gospel, country and bluegrass.

He still cruises in his signature low-crown Stetson hat "cropped the way I like it."

"I like helping out the elderly musicians," said Ferguson, now 61 himself. "A lot of them never had a CD. I like to help them get recorded."