Blues mandolinist Bert Deivert talks about T- Model Ford, Sam Chatmon, Sweden, Thailand, Mali & San Francisco

"I miss live acoustic blues music being a part of daily life..."

Bert Deivert : Blues on the 8 strings

Bert is an American blues artist now living in Sweden. He has been playing professionally for 38 years and has performed all over the world in various constellations within the folk music and blues genres. He has released 4 solo albums, 6 duo albums, and performed on many other artists' albums.

Bert Deivert was born 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1966 Bert saw Son House on public television and was so amazed by what he saw that he immediately broke a wine bottle to make his own bottleneck. He has been hooked on the blues and Son House ever since. Like many American families, his family moved around every three years or so till he was 14 years old. He lived in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Utah, California, and finally in Derry, New Hampshire on the East Coast of the United States. While supporting himself as a musician playing solo on the streets of San Francisco and with other street friends like Peter Case, he learned to play for an audience. He moved to Sweden in 1974 where he has worked ever since as a singer and musician. He has had several songs covered by other artists, and has done widespread radio, tv, and theatre work. Bert has played together with such diverse musicians as singer/songwriter Peter Case, blues artist Eric Bibb, New York bluesman Michael Powers, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, old timey legend Tom Paley, and Irish piper and singer Christy O'Leary. Bert has been visiting Mississippi the last couple of years and playing and jamming with the likes of bluesmen Bill Abel, Sam Carr, Cadillac John Nolden, Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, and T-Model Ford.
Bert's repertoire consists of blues classics by the likes of Son House, Yank Rachell, Sam Chatmon, Skip James, Johnny Young, Carl Martin, Howard Armstong, Vol Stevens, Will Hatcher, Tampa Red, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Sheiks, and some original tunes that fit right into the style of Delta and country blues. Bert's specialties are blues mandolin and slide guitar, as well as his distinctive and powerful voice.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Bert, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I started out like a lot of kids my age, playing rock after seeing the Beatles on tv. But I heard about blues, and was interested in it, but had no access to it, living in a small town in New Hampshire. I turned on the tv one day watching PBS (public service) and saw some clips of Son House. I was amazed and loved his singing and playing. Tried to figure out how to make a bottleneck, which I had heard about. Broke a wine bottle my parents had in the kitchen and sat grinding the sharp edges down. then I took the guitar and started fooling around. This was the beginning... I have learned the most from listening to and seeing clips, when possible, of Son House, Sam Chatmon, Yank Rachell, and Carl Martin.  However, one modern player’s first album always moved me, and still does, Johnny Winter.

What characterizes the sound of Bert Deivert?
Well nowadays, blues mandolin playing. I earned my living as a singer most of my adult life, playing guitar, but I have gotten most recognition during my career for the mandolin work I have done. I play mostly acoustic music, and dig the sound of the 20’s to 40’s.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Well the are many playing highlights I remember, that have nothing to do with fame or big audiences, but where you just get that chill up your spine when it goes well and you connect with another musician. However, one thing that made me feel VERY good was receiving the KOM CHAD LEUK award for Best Instrumental 2009 in Thailand for a duo of slide guitar and mandolin my friend Pong and I did on his band’s album. The song is called Nongharn Blues, which we composed ourselves, and which is a mix of Thai folk and blues. I play every year in Thailand now, and I was very happy to feel that Thai people enjoyed what we did with their music.
The worst... When my friend, mentor, and producer Bo Hansson died last year. We were working on putting out a retrospective compilation of the 3 albums that Eric Bibb and I did as a duo in the early 80’s on Bo’s label OPUS 3. The music has been out of print for ages, and there are some great things on the albums. He had been a friend since 1978 and the one person on the business side of things that kept me going.

What does the BLUES mean to you, what does Blues offered you?  Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues means emotion, and it can be good or bad, happy or sad. But it is emotion that moves me. Blues has given me the chance to meet many people and to explore the roots of American music. My wish is that blues mandolin music has a new renaissance. It has been forgotten and ignored, and is really something very unique.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Friendly and open musicians in other countries that welcome me to play with them. This makes me learn more and stretch my limits as a player to accomodate their music. And all the things in life that inspire you, like love, your children, and harmony, as well as discord...

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?
Yank Rachell and Sam Chatmon.

Is there any similarity and difference between the folk blues and the modern electric blues?
Of course. Electric blues uses the basic forms and takes off from there.

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
It comes from a combination of all three. First, the heart, and then the soul, and finally the brain, which tries to make sense of all that you wish to say with the former two elements.

Do you know why the sound of the mandolin is connected to the blues?
Well mandolin was a major instrument in string band music in the US, and black or white string bands played the same repertoire for parties and dancing. When white music began drifting in other directions later towards old timey, country, and bluegrass, the black musicians began incorporating the string band instruments in the blues. It is a natural progression.

What are the secrets of blues mandolin? What does “blues mandolin” mean to you?
No secrets! Just play what you feel and listen to the old players to get a sense of how it can be used in the context of a song. Then put yourself into it and add YOUR touch. To me blues mandolin means exploration, discovery, and a journey that I am on with this music, until I die.

Any comments about your experiences on the streets of San Francisco?
Well a lot of things happened there! Read my buddy Peter Case’s book about our days on the streets.  As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport.  We played together and he wrote down MANY things that happened. He remembers a lot more than I do! I have laughed a lot reading the book, and also realized how hard it was for a lot of us then. It was great to learn more about performing since I didn’t have that much experience playing on my own outside of a band context. I had no money, and no place to live, and took my guitar down to Fisherman’s Wharf and started busking for money. I learned a lot about singing and audiences, and met Peter and other musicians to play with. It turned into a year... I met a Swedish girl, and then later left with her to travel in Central America and to Sweden in 1974. I have lived in Sweden ever since.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?
At one time I aspired to be a singer/songwriter. I wrote a lot, but in Sweden the people didn’t seem interested in the songs, and I had no English speaking audience to get feedback from. After many years, I just stopped writing. But the inspirations were travels and life problems and experiences. Nowadays, it is more about the sound of an instrument and the echo of a an older folk tradition that inspires me. I never had any mentors in songwriting.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
It has a great beat at any tempo, and it echoes an older tradition,  at the same time being very modern. It will never be hit music, but there will always be an audience.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Don’t take gigs that will kill your inspiration, the kind where you are a jukebox in a club for drunks. It makes you tire of the good things in music. Listen to as much music as you can, and the older music of the style you like, to see what inspired your favorites! Don’t give up, but don’t expect to even make a living on it. Never say anything bad about another musician. Be kind, generous to other beginners you meet along the way, and humble.

                                                                                                       Photo by Scott Barretta
You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why?
Of these guys you mention, I have met and jammed with them all, but only done festival and club gigs with Bill, Cadillac John, and T-Model. We had some nice festival work in Sweden in 2010, with some very fun things, and hanging out at my house for a few days. T-Model is a born entertainer and storyteller and loves to amuse people. Cadillac John is quiet, but he has some very interesting things to tell you when you sit with him and chat. T-Model, Bill, and I played at the Johnny Winter Blues Marker ceremony in Leland, Mississippi in 2010, and that was an experience. Johnny was supposed to jam with us but was quite ill, and had to be helped by two guys just to walk up and look a the plaque put up outside his grandfather’s former store.  That was a nice experience. Playing in a small blues bar with my friends in Bangkok is a great experience nearly every night. I have been here now for almost 4 months. The most amazing venue I have ever played in was the Patan Museum in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was for the Himalayan Blues Festival in November, 2011. It is an old palace, in a very old part of the city, converted into a museum, and we played in the courtyard with old brick structures and wall ornamentations everywhere.

What is the current state of the live music scene in Sweden where you live?
There are many great musicians in Sweden, but sadly the state of live music is pretty bad. Larger cities have venues that have regular music, but the blues scene outside of Stockholm is pretty bad. Most of my gigs are outside of Sweden. I would love to play more there, but there just doesn’t seem to be much of an interest in what I do. Electric blues is the most popular and what the festivals tend to feature. So acoustic blues is a very marginal kind of music that people are not familiar with. And blues mandolin? Well, people constantly ask me how mandolin can be a blues instrument. They have no knowledge of the history of blues. A young kid in his 20’s came up to me in Sweden after a gig and asked me a few things about the blues. I asked him what kind of music he played. “Traditional blues,” is what he said. So I was immediately interested and happy that young people were exploring this music and asked him who his favorite traditional blues musician is. He said Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Brian Kramer, a New York boy now in Stockholm, has injected new life into the blues scene and has done a fantastic job with a weekly jam in the old part of the city at a club called STAMPEN, as well as regular gigs during the week. Brian is a great musician and a great person, and champions acoustic music too.

You have traveling all around the world. Is there any similarity between the blues and the local folk music?
Absolutely. Isaan Thai folk music has many similarities to blues forms, especially the minor forms, like Skip James’ minor tuning. Swedish folk music also has these elements too. I have been listening recently to ngoni music from Mali in Africa, and this music obviously was the precursor to blues, and is wonderful to jam to with my mandolin. I have applied for the Festival Au Desert in Mali next year, and hope that I can go and play there to meet more musicians fro that culture.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from your shows around the world?
Once at a festival in Sweden, we were doing Goin’ Down South, an RL Burnside song I recorded on the new album KID MAN BLUES, and a didgeridoo player came up and started playing with us. He set up this drone sound on the bass register that just kept the flow going and really captured the spirit of the song. You don’t always have to be traditional to still get it right!
Last summer I played a festival in Lithuania, and Eric Sardinas was the headliner. Just before my gig I had my vintage National guitar from the 30’s and my resonator mandolin backstage. His dobro had gotten lost on the way over from LA, and he asked to try it. So we jammed a bit. The next night, after my gig, I settled in to have a snooze, and there was a knock on my cabin door. The organizer said Eric asked if i would please come and join him for his set on a song. So I got dressed and headed over to the stage. We got up and did an acoustic version of a Rory Gallagher song he does, totally improvised. 3000 screaming kids applauded me when I walked out with the mandolin. I had to laugh because it is definitely not the kind of audience I normally have!  We had a good time and there is a little clip of it on youtube.

How you would spend a day with Yank Rachell, Sam Chatmon, Skip James, Johnny Young,  & Sleepy John Estes?  
Talking and playing, what else!?  Oh that would be a day! 

What do you miss most nowadays from the “Old good days of Blues”?
What I consider the good old days are the times before I was born, 1920’s to 1950, but they were hard times for people. However, the music had a function and was part of their daily life. I miss live acoustic blues music being a part of daily life...

Bert Deivert - blues mandolinist

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