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Barry Yeoman


Dr. Donald Hopkins helped wipe smallpox from the planet. He won’t rest until he’s done the same for Guinea worm disease.

Dr. Donald Hopkins
Dr. Donald Hopkins

Photograph by Melissa Golden

At an open-air hospital in northern Ghana, Donald Hopkins watched a small girl endure a medical ordeal unseen in the United States.

It was 2007, and four-year-old Rafia Fusseini was getting treated for Guinea worm, a parasite that infected her after she drank contaminated water and then grew inside her body. Now it was burrowing out through her skin. Rafia sat on a chair, dressed in a blue-and-red print blouse, as a healthcare worker slowly guided the worm through an ulcer on her leg, taking care not to tear it as it emerged. Rafia’s mouth was open in agony, her cheeks wet with tears. Beside her stood former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who leaned forward and touched the girl tenderly.

“She was in so much pain,” says Hopkins, special advisor for Guinea worm eradication at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, as he looks at a photo from that day. “There were scores of other people there, most of them children, all wailing.” Guinea worm disease is seldom fatal, but as the worm exits the body—a process that can take weeks or months—the pain is searing, like a hot cigarette pressed against the skin. A reporter then traveling with Hopkins described the hospital visit as “a scene out of hell.”

Hopkins, a physician who has dedicated 37 years to fighting Guinea worm disease, was frustrated as he witnessed Rafia’s anguish that day. Even as the number of Guinea worm cases had plummeted from an estimated 3.5 million worldwide in 1986 to 25,000 in 2006, Ghana was starting to backslide. In February 2007 the country had reported more than 1,000 new cases, up from 622 a year earlier. Hopkins knew this uptick was preventable, if only the government would act more aggressively.

Yet that day proved pivotal. Carter’s visit made international news. “The embarrassment and pressure went a long way toward getting the political authorities to pay serious attention,” Hopkins says. Carter also leaned on Ghana’s president, warning—in the former U.S. president’s recollection—that if the West African country didn’t make progress, “we were going to change the name from Guinea worm to Ghana worm.” In 2010 Ghana recorded its last case; it was certified worm free in 2015.

Now Hopkins is approaching an even greater milestone in the effort that has consumed half his life. In 2016 the three countries that still harbored Guinea worm disease—which has no vaccine and no modern medical treatment—reported just 25 cases. Health officials believe that, with vigilance, the disease will soon be eradicated globally.

Guinea Worm
Guinea worm

Photograph by Melissa Golden

If that happens, there will be much credit to go around. But the greatest accolades will go to Hopkins, whose rigor and persistence have propelled the decades-long effort.

“Don will give everyone and his grandmother credit for everything,” says Jeffrey Koplan, vice president for global health at Emory University and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “But I firmly believe this would not have been achieved in the absence of Don.”

The self-effacement Koplan describes is evident in Hopkins’s very physical presence. He has a shaved head and, at 76, a still youthful, handsome face. He speaks softly, gesticulating but never wildly, relaying his own history in short bursts of understatement. His command of dates and numbers and public health subtleties is encyclopedic and immediate. Ask why he became a physician, though, and he struggles to articulate the reason.

Hopkins grew up in Miami’s Bahamian community in the 1940s. There were no physicians in his family. His immigrant father was a carpenter, his first-generation mother a seamstress. He only recalls being inside a doctor’s office twice as a young child, first for vaccinations and later when he fell into a pool of hot water and scalded his arms and legs. Yet when adults asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, “I remember always responding, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ It was just something that was there,” he says.

The seventh of 10 living children and the first born in a hospital, Hopkins attended segregated schools, carrying an “almost daily awareness” that the scribbles inside his textbooks belonged to the white kids who had used them first. In 10th grade he took a test that qualified him to leave high school early and enter Morehouse College on a three-quarter scholarship. It was a significant opportunity. “I knew we needed the money,” he says.

It was during his undergraduate studies that Hopkins’s interest in tropical diseases was piqued. He had received a grant to study abroad, and that year he and some other expat American students boarded a boat to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, they took trains south to Cairo and Luxor. Hopkins was struck by the number of Egyptians he saw with inflamed and clouded eyes, flies buzzing around the sockets. Later he would learn they suffered from trachoma, a bacterial infection that can cause irreversible blindness. “As a fellow human being, I thought, ‘I would really like to be able to help people like this,’” he says.

After finishing medical school at the University of Chicago—where he was the only black student in his graduating class—and completing an internship, Hopkins applied to the U.S. Public Health Service and asked to work in Africa. Someone forwarded his application to the CDC in Atlanta, which, unbeknownst to him, was recruiting for a global smallpox eradication program.

While there had been attempts before to eradicate a disease worldwide, smallpox posed an exceptional threat. “It didn’t matter how rich your country was,” Hopkins says. Even though endemic smallpox had been eliminated from the United States in the late 1940s, infected individuals could still import the disease. The CDC hired Hopkins in 1967—the same year the World Health Organization (WHO) stepped up its eradication efforts—and posted him to Sierra Leone, which then had the highest known smallpox rate in the world.

Smallpox has been called “the most terrible of all the ministers of death.” A contagious, often deadly disease spread by close contact, it scarred and blinded its victims, killing 300 million in the 20th century alone. Sierra Leone was hit by an epidemic the year before Hopkins arrived, and it fell to him—just 26 and newly married—to advise the national government as it responded.

“I was too young to be cynical,” he says. “It seemed very logical to me that we had a vaccine that, once you gave it to people, essentially protected them for life. The challenge was to mass-vaccinate people.”

Hopkins and his team set out to do that, equipped with jet injectors that could deliver 1,000 shots per hour. They traveled by plane, pick-up truck, and Boston Whaler boat to province after province, circling the country counterclockwise. Where they were no roads, they’d often hike. “There were lots of snakes,” Hopkins says of those walks. “I was not at all fond of those.” Villagers welcomed the vaccine, he says, “They knew what smallpox was, they feared it, and they were grateful for the help.”

Still, he felt the approach could be more deliberate. At any one time, no more than 5 percent of Sierra Leoneans were living near outbreaks, he says. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to target those places—even if they were not yet scheduled for mass vaccinations—before the disease spread?

A few months after he began the job, Hopkins embraced a new strategy developed in Nigeria: Instead of focusing solely on mass inoculation, the team he was on would step up its surveillance; when an outbreak occurred, doctors would rush to the scene and try to contain it by vaccinating the people who lived nearby. Not every public health leader embraced his method. Back then, mass vaccination was so widely accepted as the default method for eradicating smallpox that any departure aroused skepticism. “But Don bought into that strategy,” says former CDC associate director for policy coordination Elvin Hilyer, “and lo and behold, in a remarkably short period, smallpox is gone.” Sierra Leone reported its last case in 1969, and disease was formally pronounced dead worldwide in 1980.

Guinea worm pipe filter
Guinea worm pipe filter

Photograph by Darnell Wilburn

Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease
Created by West African nomads using reeds and fabric, the Guinea worm pipe filter concept has a straightforward strategy: Cover one end of the reed with cloth to make a filtered drinking straw that keeps out infected water fleas.

As a part of the Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease exhibition, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum has several of these filters on display until December. Presented beside the handmade filters are newer, sleeker pipe filters. Mass-produced versions of the filters are now distributed by the millions.

Illustrated in part by this pairing of prototype and advanced filters, the focus of Countdown to Zero is the efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease, river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, polio, and malaria.

The exhibition, which is co-curated by the American Museum of Natural History’s Mark Siddall and Carter Center’s Donald Hopkins, includes photographs, video clips, artifacts, and text dealing with all kinds of disease treatments, from the rudimentary to the complex.

The exhibition continues through December 17. —Rachel Pittman

Having helped wipe out one scourge, Hopkins was well positioned to lead the effort to eradicate a second. “I can’t believe it’s an accident that Don was involved in both,” says Mark Siddall, a parasitologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and curator of the Carter Center’s Countdown to Zero exhibition, which explores the history of global efforts to eradicate diseases, including Guinea worm disease.

Hopkins first glimpsed a Guinea worm in an undergraduate textbook. He never forgot the photo of a worm emerging from a woman’s body. Then in 1980—after studying and teaching at Harvard, fighting smallpox in India, and finally returning to the CDC as assistant director for international health—he found himself chatting with a French physician at a WHO meeting in Switzerland. The Frenchman described seeing Guinea worm while working on the Ivory Coast and then watching in fascination as the disease declined precipitously after the government brought in safe drinking water.

Guinea worms start as larvae, which are consumed by water fleas. People ingest the fleas when they drink contaminated water from ponds, streams, or open wells. Inside the stomach, gastric juices dissolve the fleas, releasing the larvae, which can grow into worms up to three feet long. After mating within their host’s body, the males die. But the females need to emerge to release their larvae, so they bore through their host’s skin a year after the original contaminated fleas are consumed. The worms potentially can emerge anywhere, even the eyes. Seeking relief from the agony, sufferers often plunge their bodies into water, which stimulates the worms to release their larvae, and the cycle begins anew.

The disease causes more than physical torment. It keeps farmers out of their fields and children out of school in places so destitute that they cannot afford these absences. “This is the quintessential disease of forgotten people in forgotten places,” says Ernesto Ruiz-Tiben, who now directs the Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program.

The surefire way to prevent Guinea worm disease is to build and use safe drinking water systems. But there are cheaper, lower-tech remedies. The water flea is large enough that it can be easily removed by pouring drinking water through a cloth or steel mesh filter (or even a T-shirt). Sufferers must be kept away from the water supply while the worms are emerging. And ponds can be treated with a mild chemical to kill the larvae. Eradicating Guinea worm disease means driving the species to extinction; Guinea worm disease cannot survive without its hosts.

Dukunani Dam
In the absence of a water system, women and children collect water from the Dukunani Dam in Savelugu, Ghana. Filtering water is highly effective for reducing Guinea worm disease.

Photograph courtesy of the Carter Center/L. Gubb

In 1981 the United Nations’ International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade was slated to begin. Yet reading an issue of WHO’s magazine devoted to the Water Decade—during the same 1980 meeting where he chatted with the French doctor—Hopkins was surprised to see no reference to Guinea worm disease. (“I went through it twice,” he says.) That night, with his wife asleep in their Swiss hotel room, he sat in the bathroom and made notes about how to address the disease, including adding its eradication to the Water Decade agenda.

It would not be an easy sell. “WHO was not enthusiastic at all, on the contrary,” he says. Guinea worm disease was mostly unknown in the developed world, there was no vaccine, and its one-year incubation period meant progress would be slow. Plus, stamping out smallpox was “such a huge enterprise that many people were tired,” says Ruiz-Tiben.

But Hopkins says his work in Sierra Leone “immunized me against pessimism. When people said to me, ‘You’re not going to be able to eradicate Guinea worm disease,’ I had heard all of that about smallpox. So I just brushed it off.” The CDC allowed him to spend a fraction of his time working on Guinea worm disease eradication, and among his early projects was assisting Nigeria, an influential country with a respected health minister, to organize a conference on Guinea worm disease in 1985. Nigeria’s interest lent gravitas to the effort. “This was not just some oddball Don Hopkins, pushing his pet thing,” he says. “This was something that an important country was very serious about.” Finally, in 1986, WHO’s governing body passed a resolution calling for the eradication of Guinea worm disease.

At CDC, Hopkins was able to lay groundwork in the fight. But with neither a mandate nor a significant budget to fight Guinea worm disease, he says, “CDC alone would not have been able to take this much further.” In 1987, after climbing the ranks and serving briefly as acting director, Hopkins left for the Carter Center, which embraced his vision of Guinea worm disease eradication and now coordinates the international effort. There, Hopkins knew he could work on the disease full-time, with more resources and with President Carter’s global influence. Hopkins has remained at the center, in various roles, ever since.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter comforts six-year-old Ruhama Issah at Savelugu Hospital in Ghana as a Carter Center assistant dresses the child’s Guinea worm wound.

Photograph courtesy of the Carter Center/L. Gubb

If all it took to end Guinea worm disease were water filters and larvicide, Hopkins and his colleagues would have finished the job years ago. What it also takes is the deft navigation of cultural differences and political rivalries—not to mention armed conflicts, broken-down health systems, bad roads and no roads. Diplomacy is essential on a grand scale: President Carter brokered a six-month ceasefire in Sudan’s civil war in 1995 to allow Guinea worm workers access. It’s also needed at the household level, where senior wives in polygamous marriages sometimes withhold water filters from their juniors. Guinea worm is the subject of considerable mythology—the worms have been viewed as both messages from ancestors and the product of witchcraft—and those beliefs need to be addressed respectfully. So do critics who question the allocation of public health dollars, like the Nigerian women who, according to the New York Times, blocked a pond and shouted, “Why don’t you go treat AIDS instead?”

Dealing with these complexities means building trust. “When you enter a village, you leave your culture behind,” says Adam Weiss, associate director of the Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program. “We can’t come in heavy-handed and say, ‘You must do X, Y, Z.’ We all know how human beings respond to that.”

Weiss remembers, in 2011, when flooding in South Sudan forced both him and Hopkins to hunker down in a remote settlement of mud huts with thatched roofs. As soon as their Land Cruiser arrived at the village, Hopkins jumped out of the vehicle and started walking house to house. “He would greet families in their language, ask to see their filters, communicate about what the household knew about Guinea worm,” Weiss says. “It was real engagement, reinforcing the work of the volunteers, of the leadership in the community. He was always ready to be their champion.”

Eradicating a disease also requires rigorous data collection and management. That’s evident at WHO and Carter Center’s annual meeting of Guinea worm eradication program managers from around the world: two days of PowerPoint presentations, in French and English, that lay out all the previous year’s cases in penetrating detail. There are conversations about surveillance programs, including monetary rewards for villagers who report their sick neighbors, and updates on scientific research.

Hopkins, the elder statesman, listens attentively from a central seat. He asks questions, pushes for specificity, and delivers praise—along with quiet, precise criticism. “He can take a lot of data, synthesize it quickly, and present a cogent argument,” says his former CDC colleague P. Craig Withers, who now manages international health activities at the Carter Center. “That’s a fairly rare trait, [which] he doesn’t understand . . . he’s always wondering why others can’t do the same.”

The global incidence of Guinea worm disease today is tiny compared to the 3.5 million cases in 1986. Still, the last vestiges of the disease—which in 2016 was reported in Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan—will take extraordinary effort to eliminate. South Sudan is a good example of why. “We just came off a long and destructive war,” says Makoy Samuel Yibi Logora, the country’s eradication program director. “The road infrastructure is terrible. The health system is nonexistent. We have a really prolonged rainy season.” Still, the country reported only six cases in 2016, compared to 20,582 a decade earlier.

Chad, which reported 16 of the world’s 25 cases last year, has thrown a special challenge at public health experts: There, the worm has unexpectedly appeared in dogs, which must be tethered to keep them away from ponds but often aren’t. To become extinct, Guinea worm needs to be eliminated from both human and canine hosts. “When that happens,” Hopkins says, “there will be no place for this worm to come back from.”

Despite the frustrating bumps, Hopkins insists the end is close and says he won’t retire until the disease is completely wiped from the planet. A heart attack in 2015 led him to stop flying (he lives in Chicago) and reduce his hours to half time. Even though he has less stamina than he used to, Hopkins says the imminence of global eradication energizes him. “There’s no way I can stop,” he says. “My wife would love to get all of these Guinea worm papers out of this house so she has more room. But I want to see the end of this worm.”

“You must not think of this as entirely voluntary,” he says of his continued work. “I’ve got the tiger by the tail and I can’t let go.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.

3-D printing is powering the next industrial revolution. Meet 5 of Atlanta’s innovators.

1116_3dprint01_oneuseonlyIf you want to see Atlanta’s industrial future up close, come to an office park near Atlantic Station and examine a titanium plate, the size of a thumbnail, that was recently designed to correct foot deformities.

It doesn’t look like much: a gunmetal-gray widget shaped roughly like a cross and curved to fit snugly around a bone. But the material is so thin, and the geometry so complex, that until recently a single prototype would have taken four days to tool. Commercial production would have cost so much that “we could never get somebody to pay what we needed to make money,” says Jeremy Blair, a vice president at Atlanta-based company MedShape, which created the plate to correct bunions.

But now that equation has changed—and the difference is a groundbreaking technology called 3-D printing.

If the first industrial revolution was marked by the cotton mills of the late 18th century, and the second by automotive assembly lines, then—as the Economist has noted—the latest revolution is digital: creating designs using computer software and then turning them into solid objects. A 3-D printer reads a three-dimensional computerized design and lays down successive thin layers of material. The layers—made of plastic, metal, ceramic, chocolate, or even human tissue—are bonded with heat or light until they grow into a precisely rendered shape. With this new technology, a printer can crank out Blair’s titanium plate in 10 minutes and in production-sized quantities, dropping his manufacturing costs by 80 to 90 percent compared with traditional machining.

Until recently, though, 3-D printing was beyond most businesses’ budgets. In the early 2000s, the cheapest machines sold for $45,000, but ran slowly and with poor resolution. Today a hobbyist can plunk down a few hundred dollars for a low-end desktop model, design an object with user-friendly software, and print the creation at home—a snub to mass-market consumerism. To Neil Miller, a Museum of Design Atlanta staffer who teaches 3-D printing to adults and children, the technology “represents a subculture of society saying, ‘We want to make our own things. We don’t want to be limited to what’s available. We want to do it ourselves.’”

On a commercial scale, 3-D printers mean engineers can produce in-house prototypes, fine-tuning their products without the expense and delays of traditional manufacturing. “[It] has been an absolute catalyst for entrepreneurship,” says K.P. Reddy, senior advisor to Atlanta’s SoftWear Automation, which uses the technology to build robots that can sew clothing. “The big companies can’t move as nimbly. But between e-commerce and 3-D printing, you can design and launch a product in 60 days with very little capital—just a great idea of how to solve a problem.”

And with the highest-quality machines, 3-D manufacturing can create products that are too technically difficult, or too expensive, to produce in conventional factories. “The design space is exploding,” says Suman Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and cofounder and CEO of DDM Systems, a company that uses 3-D printing for aerospace and energy applications. “The entire sphere of possibility has expanded.”

Georgia State University lecturer Chris Goode uses 3-D priting to create classroom models.
Georgia State University lecturer Chris Goode uses 3-D priting to create classroom models.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The Inspired Educator
Decatur Makers occupies a former church basketball gym that was starting to collapse before the nonprofit took it over for $1 a year. Now it’s a tinkerers’ paradise filled with sewing machines, soldering irons, oscilloscopes, electric saws, a laser engraver, a milling machine, and several 3-D printers—all for the use of its nearly 140 members. The building, one of several local “makerspaces,” buzzes not just with enterprise but also with collegiality. “It’s less about DIY,” says executive director Lew Lefton, “and more about DIT—do it together.”

In a corner, one of the 3-D printers spits out successive layers of cherry-red goo through a nozzle. It’s creating what look like four identical Lego pieces—that is, if Legos were reenvisioned under the influence of hallucinogens, their smooth lines replaced by foamy chaos. “Voltage-gated potassium channels,” member Chris Goode helpfully explains—or, more accurately, plastic replicas of these human proteins.

Goode is a 49-year-old senior lecturer who teaches psychology and neuroscience at Georgia State University. During his own student days, “I had a horrible time as an undergraduate even conceiving what a cell protein was,” he says. “But they’re actual three-dimensional things that do very important work in cells, including the neurons that signal in your brain.”

Goode has printed models of cell proteins and a model of a graduate studen'ts cerebral cortex, which he extracted from an MRI.
Goode has printed models of cell proteins and a model of a graduate studen’ts cerebral cortex, which he extracted from an MRI.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

It turns out the National Institutes of Health keeps a database of 3-D biomedical models, blueprints for 3-D printing, available for free. Goode had seen a 3-D printer on display at a campus teaching-with-technology event in 2014. That summer, he approached Georgia State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and asked if he could use their printers to create classroom models. By fall he was using them to enlighten his students. He’s become something of an evangelist since then, touting the educational uses of 3-D printing to other instructors he meets at the center.

“For a lot of students, what they need to make everything click is to hold it in their hand and look at it,” he says. “You can see that aha moment—‘Oh yeah, this is actually a thing.’”

The printer stops, leaving four finished pieces, to be glued together. (Goode would later figure out how to print it as a single, more stable piece.) The next task for this machine will be to fabricate a part that will be used to repair the 3-D printer next to it. “How meta is that?” Goode asks.

The Industry Disruptor
Robots can now build cellphones, pack lettuce, cut noodles, and assemble solar panels. Clothing manufacturing is harder to automate. Fabric is soft. It bunches up, stretches, and wrinkles. Human eyes and hands are well suited for making the constant adjustments needed to sew a T-shirt or a pair of jeans. But today many of those eyes and hands belong to children and adults in developing countries working under sweatshop conditions.

SoftWear Automation, located in a low-slung Westside building, is focused on overcoming those technological obstacles using robots made partly by 3-D printing. Its main innovation involves high-speed (but relatively inexpensive) cameras that track the movements of fabric with the help of sophisticated software, correcting for when the cloth shifts and buckles. The technology was originally developed by a team at Georgia Tech, with funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. (The military generally must buy uniforms from U.S. suppliers and therefore wants to cut labor costs.)

According to K.P. Reddy, the 45-year-old senior adviser to SoftWear, 3-D printing has been essential in two ways. First, it enables the company to customize the robot’s design to the client’s needs. (For example, the effector, a hand-like part that touches the cloth, must be tailored to each specific fabric.) Second, it means employees can prototype new parts quickly and cheaply. Their designs don’t need to be sent off to a factory to fabricate with expensive injection molding.

“If we’re truly innovating, we break more things than we fix,” Reddy says. “We’re always trying to push the limits. We would have to be hyper-conservative in our R&D department if we had to make $20,000 mistakes. I can make $50 mistakes all day long. We would have had to raise five times as much capital if 3-D printing didn’t exist.”

Reynoldstown artist Colleen Johnson produces her collection of "wearable planters" using 3-D printing.
Reynoldstown artist Colleen Johnson produces her collection of “wearable planters” using 3-D printing.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The Small-Scale Entrepreneur
“I wanted to make something that can bring springtime with you,” says Colleen Jordan, describing her so-called wearable planters—tiny vases that hang around the neck, pin to a lapel, or clip to a bicycle, allowing their owners to tote around miniature gardens.

Jordan, who studied industrial design at Georgia Tech, spent part of her junior year abroad in Sweden, where mossy green roofs provided “pop-up color” during the otherwise gray winter. The short days depressed her, but those roofs provided both relief and inspiration.

After she returned stateside, she designed a wearable planter, then fabricated it on one of the university’s 3-D printers. “It was amazing to see one of my products materialize without [spending] hours wearing a respirator, sanding down fine layers of paint,” she says.

Today Jordan designs the planters with 3-D modeling software and prototypes them on her own printer, which she bought for $400. Two commercial 3-D printing facilities, in New York and San Francisco, manufacture the products, which she then hand-dyes. She sells about 100 pieces a month at retail and has acquired some wholesale customers, too. Because the printing firms do much of the fabrication, she’s able to run the business solo out of her Reynoldstown loft, hiring assistants only when she has large orders to ship. Lately Jordan has been thinking about how to expand her business—not just by growing her product lines, but by consulting with other companies on 3-D printing.

Some of her colorful painted necklaces and lapel pins.
Some of her colorful painted necklaces and lapel pins.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Three years ago Jordan crashed her bicycle, and the resulting broken hand required multiple surgeries. She now suffers nerve damage and arthritis. For a traditional craftswoman, this might have been a career-killer. But 3-D printing has allowed her to persevere. “I don’t have the manual dexterity to make that,” she says, pointing to one of her planters. “But I can tell a machine to make that by putting in the right combination of zeros and ones.”

The Healthcare Innovator
Jeremy Blair grew up in an engineering family. His mother is a civil engineer. His father is an acoustical engineer. His older brother is an aerospace engineer. “So I figured, might as well,” he says. “It’s in the genes.” After studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, he eventually found his way to MedShape, an Atlanta company that manufactures orthopedic devices.

In 2013 two surgeons came to MedShape with a concept for improving bunion surgery. A bunion, from the Greek word for “turnip,” is a foot misalignment. The bone at the base of the big toe—known as the first metatarsal—sticks out, causing a bony bump to form around the joint. The condition is painful, and it can make walking difficult and trigger other conditions like arthritis. Traditionally, repairing bunions involves surgery to cut and realign the bone, followed by a long and arduous recovery.

The new procedure wouldn’t require sawing through bone. Instead, a curved titanium plate is attached to a bone that connects to the second toe. A piece of suture tape is then tied around the plate and the bone, securing the protruding first metatarsal in the correct position.

To create the plate, which is small and intricate, MedShape first looked at traditional machining. That method of production proved to be cumbersome and expensive; a machinist would have to use micro-tools to shave away minuscule amounts of titanium.

Blair then considered 3-D printing as an alternative. He had used the process before, mostly to create rudimentary prototypes, but initially “the mechanical properties of the material were terrible,” he says. “We were dealing with overheated or under-melted areas, voids, defects, and poor surface finish.”
But the technology was improving exponentially—“actually catching up to our needs,” Blair says—and it had so many advantages.

3-D printing meant that Blair, while creating the design, could add features without adding costs. “The printer doesn’t care,” he says. “The machinist cares a lot.” It also meant that he could make rapid tweaks to the design.

By 2014 MedShape had its first prototype of the plate, which was tested on the foot of a cadaver. That same year, it won FDA clearance and oversaw the first surgery on a live patient. Based on feedback from surgeons, the company was able to modify the design using 3-D printing. The wide launch came last March, and now any hospital can buy the product in different sizes.

As of late 2015, the FDA had cleared more than 85 3-D printed medical devices. Blair wants to see that number rise; his company is actively developing two more 3-D printed titanium products and has other projects in the pipeline. “Being able to go from the initial concept through designing and manufacturing, to finally going into the OR and being able to tell the patient, ‘You’re going to be better,’” he says, “that’s a huge thing.”

Suman Das of DDM Systems has developed a revolutionary 3-D printing process for casting intricate metal parts, like those inside jet engines.
Suman Das of DDM Systems has developed a revolutionary 3-D printing process for casting intricate metal parts, like those inside jet engines.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The Engineering Pioneer
Some of the world’s most sophisticated 3-D manufacturing processes are being developed by DDM Systems, a private company run by Suman Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. DDM uses printers that project 2 million fine beams of ultraviolet light (instead of a single thicker beam) to help cast metal parts for jet engines and industrial gas turbines. The beams are projected onto the surface of a photosensitive liquid slurry, where they create a chemical reaction that causes the slurry to harden into a solid.

For more than 6,000 years, these kinds of intricate metal products were made using a technology now known as investment casting. It involves making a wax replica of the final metal object, then dipping it repeatedly in a ceramic slurry to create a thin shell. After the shell is strengthened with a coarser ceramic “stucco,” the wax is melted away, and the result is a hollow cavity for pouring molten metal. If the final object has internal channels (like a turbine blade), then a ceramic core in the shape of those channels must be created separately and set inside the wax before the shell is made.

The process usually takes 12 steps, and if you’re working from a new engine design, it could take two years to produce the first turbine blades for testing. Even state-of-the-art investment casting produces a prodigious amount of scrap, including defective ceramic cores and molds. Up to 90 percent of that scrap, Das says, is produced during the first seven steps.

Various objects printed using a DDM Systems technology
Various objects printed using a DDM Systems technology

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Das, 48, has been working with 3-D printing since he moved from India to the United States for graduate school in 1990—developing everything from missile nose cones to medical implants that serve as scaffolds for regenerating bone and cartilage. Shortly after he arrived in Atlanta in 2007, with a $6.3 million award from DARPA, he set out to develop a process for 3-D printing the ceramic shells and cores together as a single piece. The resulting technology, he says, eliminates the use of wax entirely, along with those first seven waste-heavy steps. It also cuts costs and shrinks the lead time from two years to six weeks.

Das has also developed a way to use 3-D printing to repair engine parts made from exotic nickel-based superalloys, which operate close to their melting points. The prevailing wisdom has been that these parts can’t be fixed once they suffer damage because welding makes them crack. Many end up as expensive scrap. DDM’s “additive repair” technology prints a thin layer of the same (or similar) material onto the damaged engine parts, then uses a laser to fuse it seamlessly into the original material. Earlier this year, DDM was one of five finalists—the only one from the U.S.—for the Hermes Award, a prestigious international industrial innovation honor.

Das believes that, at least in the foreseeable future, 3-D printing will continue to coexist with conventional manufacturing. Still, he says, it has sparked a new competition among industry leaders. “There’s a sense that if they don’t get on the bus now,” he says, “they’re going to be left behind.”

This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.

Musicians Eddie Tigner and Daniel “Mudcat” Dudeck forged a friendship through some real-life blues

Eddie Tigner and Daniel "Mudcat" Dudeck
Tigner and Dudeck performing on New Year’s Eve at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Ben Rollins

At 2:10 a.m. on a Sunday, the inside of Northside Tavern looks like a music­al tempest has just blown through. The barbecue has disappeared from its foil pans, and PBR empties crowd the barrel-mounted octagonal tabletops. A pool cue lies on the floor next to the cigarette machine. Wobbly ceiling fans turn with just enough momentum to push the smoke around the room. Outside the bar’s cinder­block walls, black Uber cars collect and discharge passengers on Howell Mill Road.

But Eddie Tigner, four hours into his birthday show, has no plans to wind down for the night. Standing at his Yamaha keyboard, brown fedora straight on his bald head, he launches into “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” the jazzy 12-bar blues standard made famous in 1946 by Nat King Cole. The song evokes the open road that beckoned veterans like Tigner after World War II: You see Amarillo / Gallup, New Mexico / Flagstaff, Arizona / Don’t forget Winona / Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

Tigner takes his time with the lyrics, singing as leisurely as a back roads drive. Behind him, a bartender entertains regulars by lighting his liquor-coated fingers on fire. Three generations fill the dance floor, and more patrons drift inside. Just as the song seems to end, Tigner teases out a few invented lines of his own: A little more on Route 64 / Kick that jive, stay alive on Route 65 / Get your kicks on Route 66, yabba doobee doo-doo-deeeeee! Before anyone can clap, he’s already segued into “Stormy Monday.”

It’ll be another 45 minutes before the Northside security officer signals that it’s time to shut down the music. Even then, Tigner will comply reluctantly. He’s an elf of a man, a bit too slender for the pressed black vest that covers his red short-sleeved shirt. But his stamina is legendary in the blues community. “Early to bed” is not how he made it to 89.

Outside the tavern, chatting with his musician buddies, is a guitarist whom Tigner credits with helping relaunch his career 20 years ago. Daniel “Mudcat” Dudeck is 49, as pale as Tigner is dark, with a goofy smile and a head that’s often cocked like a puppy’s. If Tigner is the master of slow and easy, Dudeck is his wild-eyed alter ego—a hip-swiveling showman who never misses the opportunity to leap off the stage and insert a female fan between his chest and guitar.

They seem like an unlikely duo: two musicians four decades apart, whose styles and personal histories have little in common. Yet each, at this stage in his life, is better because of the other. Dudeck arrived in Atlanta, a city with a robust blues history, at a moment when the scene had practically disappeared. With no formal folklore training, he worked to excavate that history and remind Atlantans that it’s still, literally, alive. He has helped create new opportunities for musicians like Tigner, both in town and on the international stage. In return, he’s gained something personal—the chance to be surrounded by a dependable circle of elder mentors.

Eddie Tigner

If Tigner’s early childhood had a soundtrack, it would have been the off-key barrelhouse blues he heard his mother play at Atlanta house parties during the early 1930s. They were lively events with weenie roasts and homemade whiskey for sale in houses with big front-room fireplaces and gaps between the floor planks. Much of the entertainment, though, happened out back.

“They would take the old raggedy piano and move it outside,” Tigner recalls more than eight decades later. “Some of the keys played. Some of the keys didn’t play. It was weird, but it sounded good because that’s all the people knew. A fellow would come around with a pair of pliers, trying to tune the strings. Sometimes the piano player had to play over those bad keys, and that’s what made it amazing.” Tigner, barely school age, would dance while his mother pounded out songs of hardship. Fittingly for a woman estranged from her first husband, she did not play love songs.

When Tigner was six, his mother remarried, this time to a coal miner—the first father Tigner knew—who moved the family to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. There he was surrounded by music again. Tigner remembers hearing country and bluegrass, but the local African American coal camps also had a distinctive blues tradition, informed by the perils of life in the mines. Workers went underground every day aware of the potential for roof collapses and rock falls; on their heads they wore open-flame carbide lamps that could trigger explosions. “It sounded so sad when you heard that horn and whistle,” Tigner recalls. “[You knew] someone had gotten trapped in the mine.”

In that crucible of danger and segregation, black families carved out a rich community life revolved around food and music, Tigner recalls. “They would kill a hog,” he says. “They’d dig a big hole, build a fire, have a wooden stilt run across it, and roast that whole pig.” Tigner’s favorite part was cranking the spit, which as a boy he could barely reach. His mother would play the piano at those gatherings, too, sometimes accompanied by a guitarist.

Saturdays were the liveliest days. “That was the black folk night in the country because Sunday you’re going to church,” Tigner says. “Everyone [would be] out drinking and dancing and kicking up their heels and bogeying, and she would play.” Even eight-year-old Tigner got in on the show: His mother made him a white tuxedo and a matching pasteboard hat for a school performance, and he would dance like band leader Cab Calloway. “I was the best buck dancer in Kentucky,” he says.

Tigner never lost his affinity for the countryside, even after his family moved back to Atlanta during his teen years. In 1945, the year he turned 19, he joined the Army, and that’s where he became a musician.

Tigner was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he booked entertainment for the troops. During and after his service, he met accomplished musicians, including guitarist T-Bone Walker, the electric blues pioneer whose “Stormy Monday” is a giant in the American canon. Tigner had taken piano lessons as a child, but he had been an impatient student. You want to play, don’t you? he recalls Walker asking. Well, you’re going to have to learn the right chords. Walker sat down and taught him the basics.

Royal Peacock Club
The Royal Peacock Club on Auburn Avenue, 1960s

AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Skip Mason Archives

Tigner left the Army in 1947 and returned to Atlanta, where he found a buoyant black entertainment scene. At its center was Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn, known as “the richest Negro street in the world” for its abundance of businesses, churches, and elegant clubs. Among them was the Royal Peacock, which opened shortly after Tigner’s arrival and drew long lines of customers eager to hear national acts like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. (Little Richard once said the Peacock’s music “makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, and the knees freeze.”)

A rowdier scene could be found among the brothels and pool halls of Decatur Street, sometimes called the Shine District for the availability of homemade liquor. “People went to drink and to dance and to fight,” says Rhetta Akamatsu, author of the book Southern Crossroads: Georgia Blues. Decatur Street was also home to Bailey’s 81 Theatre, an all-black venue where Tigner landed a weekend gig playing piano for Spencer “Snake” Anthony, a comedian who ran a vaudeville show.

“The Great Snake” had an outsized personality. His obituary said he made people laugh “until the hurting in their sides was unbearable.” His show featured shake dancing and a chorus line, and many of his performers were female impersonators—“straight from Arabia,” he would claim. Some were so convincing that, according to one account, “if a man wasn’t really careful, he’d get carried away and end up carrying one away.”

“He taught me how to treat people,” Tigner says of Anthony, “and how to be a showman.”

Those years surrounding World War II were a golden era for pop music. Audiences went crazy for romantic vocalists like the Ink Spots, a male quartet whose harmonies and high-tenor lead put them, as Billboard said in 1946, on “the top rung on the voice-blender ladder.” As a soldier, Tigner had booked the Ink Spots, and he enjoyed tapping out their tunes on the piano.

After the original Ink Spots broke up in 1954, dozens of vocal groups sprung up with the same name. Around 1959, Tigner, who was fixing electronics and delivering batteries for a living, was hired to tour with one of those bands. It became his life for most of the next 30 years.

Ink Spots
Eddie Tigner, on piano, with the Ink Spots

Photograph courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

Tigner’s Ink Spots performed at hotel lounges and military bases, crooning favorites like “Java Jive” and “If I Didn’t Care.” Tigner, whose voice was too deep for the lead, recited the spoken monologues that separated the verses. Their hotel shows, in particular, were part of a beloved midcentury tradition. “You’d go to the Holiday Inn, and there would be a lounge act,” says Tim Duffy, executive director of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which assists older Southern musicians. “There were these African American cats—dignified people dressed up in tuxedos with nice gear, with three to five pieces—having a musical conversation with one another. It’s a style that was part of American life till just about 15 or 20 years ago. Now it’s gone.”

Between shows, Tigner put in long hours on the road. One of his children, Quentin Fretwell, recalls having little contact with his father during those early touring years. (They have since grown close.) After his first wife died, Tigner remarried, and his second wife, Ollie, sometimes joined him on the road.

“You couldn’t hardly sleep, especially when he was going 500 miles,” recalls Ollie. “I’d have to keep an eye on him because he’d be driving and doze off. I’d hit him with my knee and say, ‘Wake up!’” Once they arrived at a hotel, the couple tried to re-create the normalcy of home. “I hardly ever ate [in] the dining room,” he says. “I would put my Crock-Pot on [before going] downstairs to the club. When I came back, it would be well done.”

In 1987 a road-weary Tigner left the Ink Spots, settling back in Atlanta. By then the city’s blues heyday had passed. Sweet Auburn, now divided by I-75/I-85, had lost residents to the city’s west side and fallen into decline. The Royal Peacock had closed in the 1970s upon its owner’s death. The folk revival, which brought new audiences to traditional American music, had crested.

Tigner and his wife settled into a more domestic life in their modest wooden house in Edgewood with a screened-in front porch and walls full of family photos. He found kitchen work at DeKalb County’s Indian Creek Elementary School, though he still gigged around town, where he won fans and mentored other musicians who appreciated his self-assured authenticity.

“He has a really distinctive cadence when he’s performing,” says Larry Griffith, a blues drummer and guitarist who now plays with Tigner in the band Uncle Sugar. “He’s not in a hurry to get anywhere. There’s an easiness about what he does, and you drop right into that groove with him.

“I hear a lot of guys stumble all over ‘Route 66.’ They’ll take it too fast; it’s not informed. When Eddie does it, it’s informed. You get the history behind it. He’s not telling somebody else’s story. He’s telling his story, and that always rings true.”

By the early 1990s, though, Tigner was considering giving up performing altogether. “There’s nothing much happening here now,” he would tell friends. “It’s wasting my time.” He didn’t expect to have his arm gently twisted by an upstart guitarist nicknamed Mudcat.

Daniel "Mudcat" Dudeck
Photograph by Ben Rollins

Daniel Dudeck, at the time, was a landscaper and cook in his 20s who performed regularly at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack on Piedmont Avenue. The barbecue restaurant was one of the few Atlanta venues where a roots musician without a national following could find a stage. Tigner gigged there, too, sometimes with blues saxophonist Grady “Fats” Jackson (who died in 1994). Eventually Dudeck began scoring invitations to play for senior citizen audiences alongside the older, more experienced musicians. “I turned down more than one job to play for free at an old folks home,” he says.

Dudeck came to the blues honestly. In 1976, when he was 10, his mother loaded him into her green Dodge Dart and left their Minnesota home, Florida-bound, to start a new life. She stopped at Tybee Island to show her son the ocean and ended up staying for four years. She found work bartending at a hotel, where Dudeck stayed up late listening to the lounge guitarist. “People would come in, and he’d call them by their names, mess with them—just make them feel good,” Dudeck says. “That guy made everyone feel so happy. To me, that was a big man.”

When his mother decided to continue her journey south, she left Dudeck, then 14, in the care of neighbors. That didn’t work out so well, so he ended up living, at various times, in an emergency shelter, in what he calls a “fanatical” religious household, with another teen whose parents were never home, with a costume designer, and finally with a foster family he met through the Savannah theater community. Dudeck still gets choked up talking about his foster father, Mike Gravely, who died in 2003 at age 63. “If there’s any kindness in me, it’s from him,” he says.

In high school, Dudeck taught himself some guitar chords and busked on the Savannah riverfront. He moved with his foster family to Augusta, where, at a local bookstore, a dollar bin of vinyl records by artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters gave him an early appreciation for America’s musical rootstock.

He earned his GED, took acting classes in New York, busked some more on the Staten Island Ferry, and left to attend college in New Orleans until he was kicked out for what he calls “possession of two seeds and a stem.” He briefly remained in town, hauling antiques and playing on the streets of the French Quarter. “Then my finances really got tough,” he says. “So I gave up. I think I had to.” After wandering around the South, he moved in with a childhood buddy in Atlanta and slept on the floor of his Home Park apartment. It was 1989, and Dudeck was 22.

In Atlanta, Dudeck discovered the live version of the records he had found in that dollar bin. He connected with radio station WRFG and performed at its annual fundraising barbecue, where he met another guitarist and singer, Cora Mae Bryant. (She died in 2008 at 82.) “Come by the house anytime you want,” he remembers Bryant saying—an invitation she did not extend to just anyone. In her Newton County home full of blues artifacts, Bryant would serve Dudeck homemade wine and tell stories about her father, “Georgia Guitar Wizard” Curley Weaver, and others from the early-20th-century Atlanta scene. Dudeck felt a connection to these musicians he had never met, who, like him, had earned their dinners performing on street corners. “All of a sudden, with Cora Mae, I realized the [blues] world was huge,” he says.

Dudeck went on to meet other veteran musicians. He nervously flagged down guitar and harmonica legend Frank Edwards on the street to give him a handbill (the bluesman was easily recognizable in his lime-green seersucker), and they ended up sharing a stage at his next gig. He insinuated himself into jam sessions at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack with the gravel-voiced Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. And he knew Tigner from both Fat Matt’s and those retirement home gigs.
He was intimidated by the former Ink Spot’s virtuosity. “I felt I was a performer but not a musician,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I was shy with Eddie. This guy’s a real musician. It’s like The Wizard of Oz: He’ll pull back the curtain, and I’ll be naked.”

Around 1992, Dudeck met Ellyn Webb, owner of Northside Tavern, a 1940s-era grocery store and filling station that later became a watering hole for meat packers, paper mill employees, and construction workers. Webb, who had inherited the bar from her father, was looking to bring back live music, though not specifically blues. Dudeck accepted her invitation to play and discovered that Webb was more committed than many other local bar owners to paying talent fairly—guaranteeing minimums on weeknights and giving weekend musicians a large cut of the door. He began to invite some of the older artists, including Tigner, to sit in on his shows at Northside.

Not all of Mudcat’s fans were happy about it. Some were drawn to Dudeck’s punkish energy and protested the inclusion of the soft-spoken elders. “You’re in the wrong place, sorry,” Dudeck would say. “This is where my music came from.”

Playing with Tigner helped Dudeck relax as a musician. “It seems like every generation ratchets [the tempo] up a little bit,” the guitarist says. “He’s taught me to take my time; there’s no rush, really. He reminds us that it feels good to be back here.”

Dudeck was aware of the ugly history of white promoters and record producers exploiting black musicians. “He wanted, no matter what, for them to feel respected because goodness knows, when they were in their heyday, they were shafted so many times,” says Kathryn Dudeck, Danny’s wife and wildlife director at Chattahoochee Nature Center. “There were plenty of nights that Danny would come home after the gig and say, ‘I’m sorry I only made $10, $15; I wanted to make sure Eddie was paid well.’”

Tigner appreciated Dudeck’s respectful treatment and kept returning. “I was going to retire,” he says. “But [Mudcat] gave me the opportunity to keep going. He didn’t have to do that. But he saw in me what I saw in him—same thing, friendship.”

As time went on, Dudeck realized that even regular well-paying gigs weren’t enough to help some of the city’s neediest musicians. Bryant, he noticed, heated her poorly sealed house with kerosene and, if not for friends and family, would subsist on little more than peanut butter crackers. So he began using his platform at Northside to rally the community. Starting in 1995, he organized a series of Giving It Back festivals at the tavern. The money raised by each musical blowout supported a living musician, including Tigner in 1998, and celebrated the legacy of a dead one. (Proceeds from one show, for example, purchased a new pew at the Georgia church where blues guitarist Blind Willie McTell had been a lay minister.) The festival has since morphed into Northside’s annual Chicken Raid, a show memorializing guitarist and harmonica player Frank Edwards, who died in 2002, and benefiting his family. Sometimes other musicians and organizations receive proceeds, too.

News of Dudeck’s efforts reached North Carolina, where folklorist Tim Duffy had just launched the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Duffy had the resources to make a difference in the careers of older Southern roots musicians, and Dudeck connected him with several of those he had befriended, including Tigner.

In Tigner, Duffy saw a paragon of “elegance and style and class” whose talent had outstripped his recognition. “He’s a perfect example of a musician that is known by his peers but is not known by anybody else,” Duffy says. “Not everyone gets famous. Doesn’t mean they’re any less great or less influential.”

Duffy went on to produce Tigner’s first two commercial recordings, Slippin’ In and Route 66; he sends Tigner free CDs to sell at shows. And he began booking Tigner on stages from the Chicago Blues Festival to Australia’s Byron Bay Bluesfest. Tigner, who had never traveled overseas before, found himself playing gigs at places like Le Méridien Etoile, the stylish Paris hotel. In Europe, Tigner would look out over enormous festival audiences and marvel.

“Verbally, you can’t communicate because some of them don’t speak English,” he says. “I wondered how they were going to accept the music.” After hearing the cheers, though, he realized how little the language barrier mattered. “It’s not the words that you hear,” he says. “The vibration you get from the music is what makes you change your mood.” As a World War II–era veteran, he was particularly touched by the reception from blues-crazy German audiences. I fought Germany in 1945, he remembers thinking—not on the battlefield but by providing support from Maryland. And this time I’m going over there and entertaining them.

Touring with Music Maker, Tigner felt like part of a creative community, even as he drifted into his 80s. He was beloved by his tour mates, too. “He’s bright-eyed, sweet, just the same guy every second along the way,” says Duffy. “A class gentleman, just an utter pro—he’s teaching us. He’s put on more road miles than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Eddie Tigner

Even after his newfound touring success, Tigner held onto his day job at Indian Creek Elementary, where he cooked meals, washed dishes, and occasionally helped supervise the students. “He was a favorite of all the kids,” Dudeck says. “[Especially] those who might be labeled as troublemakers. The teachers couldn’t reach them. The counselors couldn’t reach them. But they would open up to Eddie because they felt comfortable with him.”

Then, before his 2008 retirement, while helping transport some food to another school, Tigner got annoyed with himself for repeatedly forgetting dishes. “I’d have to come back to pick it up,” he says. “I did it three or four times.” He saw a doctor, who warned him that his memory could continue to decline.

“What about my music?” he asked.

“You’ll never forget that,” he recalls her saying.

Tigner says he does sometimes forget names. But he still drives and retains vivid long-term memories. And his musical capacity—and energy—remain undiminished.

“I think he sings better now than he did when I met him,” says blues singer Fred Pittman, who has known Tigner since the 1990s. Besides Sundays at Northside with Uncle Sugar, Tigner has a standing Thursday night gig at Fat Matt’s with the band Chicken Shack. Two nights before his 89th birthday party, Tigner was in Durham, North Carolina, playing an outdoor concert alongside Atlanta guitarist Albert White and several other Music Maker artists.

The day after Tigner’s birthday show, Daniel and Kathryn Dudeck hosted a cookout for some musician friends, including Tigner, at their house in Decatur. Along with the grilled chicken, Mudcat cooked a pot of gumbo full of homegrown vegetables. He and Tigner share a love of gardening, and these days their phone calls, which have grown more frequent, often dwell on raising vegetables like okra. “We always go to Kentucky,” Dudeck says of their conversations, “and how food there tasted better.”

Everyone agrees that the food tastes great today. The watermelon, freshly picked from the couple’s two-acre garden, is pale but sweet and juicy. The hot sauce is blended from Mudcat’s own peppers, and the turnips are pickled by Kathryn. There’s plenty of booze to wash it all down, including the last of a bottle of limoncello.

There’s lots of reminiscing and friendly teasing: Guitarist Albert White calls the diminutive Tigner “my little black leprechaun,” and Tigner calls White “white boy.” (Both are black.) But beneath the banter is a palpable sense of gratitude for Tigner’s decades of music and mentoring.

“I had just started singing,” recalls Pittman. “He said, ‘Fred, you need to sing in your natural speaking voice.’ No one had really ever told me that; I was trying to sing higher than I needed to. It took a while, but it made sense because I wasn’t straining anymore. I’ll always owe him for that. Plus, he’s been a great friend; he’s all about love, and about treating everybody like he wants to be treated.”

Dudeck says Tigner has been like a grandfather to him. “He makes me feel like I belong, like I have a place in the world,” he says. “Any creative person has crippling self-doubt, and he eases that up. It boosts my confidence that he has confidence in me.”

Tigner, in return, says he loves Dudeck like a son. “I give him credit, frankly, for every good thing that I do,” he says. “God gave me this talent, sure enough, but if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be using it.”

Just before dark, Tigner takes his leave from the dinner table. It’s Sunday, which means he has one more show at Northside Tavern. It doesn’t matter that he was just up playing till three o’clock this morning. In another hour, he’ll be back on the smoky stage, kicking that jive on Route 65, getting his kicks on Route 66.

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

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