Born Robert Lewis Jones in 1925 in Atlanta, Ga., "Guitar Gabriel" moved with his family to Winston-Salem when he was 5. His family, who grew up sharecropping, shared a talent for music. His great-grandmother, an ex-slave, called set dances and played the banjo; his grandfather played banjo and his grandmother the pump organ; his father and uncle were blues guitarists and singers and his sisters sang blues and gospel.
When the family moved to Durham in 1935, 10-year-old Gabriel took to the streets with his guitar. He claims to have met and learned from blues legends Blind Boy Fuller and the Reverend Gary Davis. Between the ages of 15 and 25, Gabriel traveled the country, making stops in Memphis, Nashville, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco and New York, playing his music. Before long he found a steady gig playing his guitar at medicine shows. It was during this period that Gabriel acquired the sheepskin hat that became--and remained--his trademark throughout the rest of his performing career. He also adopted a stage name, "Guitar Gabriel," during a stint where he was playing in a band for the traveling Dixie Classic Fair during the day and at burlesque shows at night.
In 1970, Gabriel went up to Philadelphia and recorded a single, "Welfare Blues," as well as an album My South, My Blues with the Gemini label under the name "Nyles" Jones. The 45 became a hit in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and though the album sold well, Gabriel, as was typical for many African-American blues and R&B artists, never saw any royalties. Disgusted and embittered by the music business, Gabriel returned home to Winston-Salem where he continued playing his music, but expressly for his community: churches, homes, clubs, "drink houses," and even at bus stops when children were returning home from school. That's when he hooked up with Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes. For the next 20 years, the trio comprised the heart of Winston-Salem's traditional blues scene, a scene that also included a 26-year-old, white guitar player and folklorist from Connecticut named Timothy Duffy.
Duffy came to North Carolina in the late 1980s as a graduate student in UNC-Chapel Hill's Curriculum of Folklore. While researching a documentary project for UNC's Southern Folklife Collection, Duffy met James "Guitar Slim" Stephens. Through Slim, Duffy found his way into the inner-city blues culture of Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Duffy accompanied Slim around the Triad playing at "drink houses." These neighborhood house parties/speakeasies have become the Piedmont's oldest and most pervasive venues for blues artists. They're intimate and exclusive and Duffy was among the first to document them.
Duffy spent a year making the rounds with Slim, playing and recording live gigs and interviewing the regulars. Then, at age 74, Slim was diagnosed with cancer. On his deathbed, he urged Duffy to continue his blues education and seek out an old friend--another Piedmont blues great named Guitar Gabriel.
In March of 1990, while substitute teaching at an inner-city school in Winston-Salem, Duffy decided to take Slim's advice. He asked his homeroom students if they knew the whereabouts of Guitar Gabriel. To his surprise, half of them talked about Gabriel as if he were a mythic character out of Greek mythology, saying that he'd been killed in a house fire. Fortunately, one of the students spoke up and said, "He is not dead. He is my next-door neighbor." She proceeded to give him directions to a drink house where Gabriel hung out, and Duffy went there directly after school. There he met Gabriel's son, Hawkeye, who led him to Gabriel's apartment.
"When I first walked into Gabe's door, he said, 'I know where you want to go, I've been there before and I can take you there.' It was like meeting a sage. He then said, 'You must make me two promises: One, don't do me wrong or I'll shoot you with my gun, and two, when I die, bury me with my guitar.'"
From that moment on, Duffy and Gabriel were pretty much inseparable, becoming a fixture of Winston-Salem's clubs and drink houses. Duffy quit his teaching job and hit the road with Gabriel, performing in festivals throughout the Southeast, in restaurants and music stores, on college campuses and at Carnegie Hall. They even traveled to Europe a few times.
Through Gabriel, Duffy met Macavine Hayes, Captain Luke, Mr. Q (Cueselle Settle) and Willa Mae Buckner of Winston-Salem. He spent night after night with Gabriel and his friends, and soon began to recognize how poverty gripped their lives. There was never enough money to meet even the most basic necessities: food, medical care, rent and utilities. Consequently, Duffy spent time picking many of them up in his van to take them to cheese lines or to the bank to cash their social security checks, to the drug store to fill prescriptions and to the post office to get money orders to pay their bills.