Dr. Burt flew up north this past weekend to perform with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and give a lecture at Dartmouth College.
What Dom Flemons had to say in the program’s notes:
“Since the Chocolate Drops play a lot of music that is historical, mentorship has always been a way of being able to personify the music. Sometimes mentorship is the tunes you learn, other times it’s just the experience of being with these older people who’ve been around all this time—they bring that to you. Because when an artist mentors you, they bring not just themselves but also all the people who mentored them as well. All that energy’s brought to the present. As the person taking on the skills, you’re able to interpret and also personify those experiences. It gives you the ability to be able to reproduce the original work, but also the option to express it yourself, if you desire.
“When you spend time with a person you can generally dissect their music in a way you couldn’t do from a recording. A record just captures the one moment when it was recorded. But when you spend time with a person, you’re learning those numbers and playing them again and again, but you also get the memories of the person you’re with.
“(The great blues musician) Joe Thompson passed in February 2012. I have memories of him that go beyond just the songs I know of his repertory. So many musicians are extremely talented, but 80% of them didn’t play professionally for most of their lives. Dr. Burt was heavily involved in the Civil Rights, which is interesting in itself—he wasn’t just a musician. Music was a sideline, a hobby, something he did as part of his life. He brings all these other experiences—boxer, farmer, etc. Certain artists understand when an opportunity is presented, they have a chance to get their music out there in a way they couldn’t previously. He instantly saw that opportunity; he saw he could make a difference with the music he was presenting: ‘I can talk about history and the life I’ve lived.’ He’s not only mentoring young people, but he is leading the way for older musicians who might not think their own music is of interest.
“He has a unique style of playing—he does a lot of Jimmy Reed numbers, but in his own idiosyncratic style. It’s not super intricate, but it’s a very rhythmic style with certain licks. And his vocal style is great—it’s a whole package. When I play with an elder, I want to find where he is at, and get the feeling of the music, then craft a part that works with what he’s doing. There’s a particular feeling he is getting from that music. I try to settle in and see what that feeling is. This helps me understand how I’d go about fitting material to my own style. I’m breaking down and analyzing stylistic differences.
“It’s like comparing philosophies. Most of the mentorship comes from talking about stuff and finding the different realms in which you and the other person walk together. Hey, folk music isn’t rocket science! But when you lock into that abstract area mentally, the music usually comes out brilliantly.”