“…like me, he loves the old style blues and he always does a great and faithful job of presenting it.” – Charlie Musselwhite
Born in the United States, but now resident in Sweden (like his old friend, Eric Bibb), Bert Deivert has been performing blues and folk music for over fifty years. A talented multi-instrumentalist with acoustic guitar, lap steel, resonator, slide guitar, mandolin, charango, and bass, he has performed in more than twenty countries and collaborated with hundreds of fine musicians around the globe, including Peter Case, T-Model Ford, Tom Paley, Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Bibb, and Wanda Jackson.
His 14th album, I Ain’t Leavin’, comes hot on the heels of his excellent collaborative album from 2020 with Libby Rae Watson, She Shimmy. Ten songs, nine Deivert originals, feature performances by Deivert playing a variety of instruments, along with his wife Eva Deivert on fiddle and daughter Emmy Deivert adding backing vocals on a couple of songs. Son Seamus did all the mastering, making it quite the family affair.
It’s a great collection of blues-tinged songs, several of which tell intriguing stories. I got chatting to Bert from his home in Sweden. I first asked him about his background as a musician, and about his perhaps unusual migration as an American to Europe.
“Well,” he told me, “I grew up in New Hampshire, but we moved around a lot when I was a child. I began playing drums because of the Beatles in 1964 and then guitar, and then started some bands. I went to San Francisco because I had a scholarship for film school there, and while I was playing in the streets I met Peter Case.
“Peter and I played together as street musicians and later on, after I went to Sweden, he had a band called the Nerves and another one called the Plimsouls which had a couple of big hits on Geffen records in LA. And he’s still going strong. I was over recording with him recently for his album Midnight Broadcast, which was released, I think, in March or April. He does a bunch of blues on it and I play mandolin and drums and sing a bit on it. So that was kind of cool.
“Anyway, I met a Swedish girl and came to Sweden with her and I just stayed there. So I’d say I’m a real mix of influences and you hear that on this new album as well. I play a lot of folk music – I was really into folk music and blues in the sixties. I heard Son House on TV in 1966 when I was sixteen on public television. And he played Levy Camp Moan and Death Letter Blues and I was blown away. So I actually went out and broke a wine bottle that my parents had laying around, and then scraped the bottleneck on the brick steps outside our house, so I wouldn’t cut my finger off. And I tried to learn how to play bottle neck. It didn’t go very well then, but I learned later!”
Deivert is well known for being a mandolin player, but you quickly realize in listening to I Ain’t Leavin’ that’s he’s a pretty nifty guitar picker as well. That’s largely what we hear on this new album. Interestingly, mandolin was something Deivert only picked up on within the last 20 years, but he’s played guitar his whole career, playing mostly folk and blues as a singer-songwriter.
Having played so much blues throughout his career, I wondered what is it about the music that really draws him to it?
“As far as blues music is concerned, it’s like any folk music, I think – and I play Irish folk music, Swedish folk music, Thai folk music, South American folk music and American folk music. And all those things sometimes have elements of all these other kinds of music. It’s a conglomerate, but there’s something about the soul of it, the emotion is what drives me. Like when I was very moved by Son House’s Death Letter Blues, where it talks about a woman who dies and he goes to see her. I get chills every time I listen to it.”
Deivert has played with a lot of well-known blues artists along the way, including Eric Bibb, with whom he made three albums in the early ‘80s and who sang on his album last year with Libby Rae Watson.
“I also played with T Model Ford and when I was in Mississippi, I met Jimmy Duck Holmes and jammed with him. I’ve played with Cadillac John Nolden and Sam Carr, the Delta drummer, who was in the Jelly Roll Kings. He’s on one of my albums. And I’ve jammed with some of the guys like Terry Harmonic Bean.”
There are some great story songs on the album – like, for example, the remarkable Badge 623, about the murder of his grandfather, a policeman in Boston.
“That’s the one about my grandfather’s murder. I started doing genealogy seriously about a year ago, because I wanted to find out more about my people in Ireland. And I happened to run across some newspaper clippings about my grandfather’s killing which I had only known about as a kid. It was a big trauma for my mother and her siblings, but I didn’t know any details. And my mom, who was two years old when her father was killed, didn’t talk about it. So I compiled all the information I could find and decided I was going to write a song.
“And I think unconsciously, it had some sort of Irish elements in it. It’s hard to pinpoint something, but my wife plays Irish fiddle too as well as Swedish fiddle. And then, I play with Christy O’Leary, an Irish musician living in Sweden too. So, you know, all this stuff is in my head. So, I took all the information and I wrote this song for my grandfather. I still get moved by it. I mean, I can’t imagine how my grandmother managed after that. She collapsed at the funeral and her brother and my grandfather’s brother, Thomas, who was also a policeman, had to hold her up – she was eight months pregnant her next child.”
Another notable song is I Heard the Dark Roads Call, which is about the Vietnam war.
“All these songs, except for one, are stories from my life. What happened in December, 1969, was there was going to be a lottery for the draft. They had two barrels, one with dates and one with numbers. And they picked one from each. They took away all student deferments. Now, I was going to college at the time and I was going to turn nineteen in the Fall and eligible for the draft.
“So what I did in the summer was to hitchhike to Montreal and take a look around. I met draft dodgers and deserters that were hanging around, living on the streets, having a hard time, trying to get asylum in Canada. And I met a couple of French separatists who were really nice to me and let me stay with them. So I began to think well, I think I’m probably gonna move to Canada if I get drafted. Because I was not going to fight in the Vietnam war. So that’s what this song is all about. Luckily, I got a good number – I got 196 and they took it up to 195. I missed it by one.
“I didn’t tell my parents about all this, but I was all prepared. I was against the government and I was against the war. I didn’t feel it was right. And so, I did what I thought was right.”
Another intriguing song is Yank and Sleepy John, which is Bert’s tribute to Yank Rachell, a country blues musician from Tennessee, who recorded blues songs prolifically with the mandolin, and Sleepy John Estes, another Tennessee bluesman. The two frequently performed together.
“When Peter Case and I were playing in San Francisco, neither of us had a place to live at the time. I was sleeping out of a car and staying with whoever I could. But Peter had a little travel record player, and he had this album called Broke and Hungry with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell. He’d put it on and we’d listen to it. I was just amazed. This was 1973 and I’d never heard mandolin with blues. And it was like, wow, this is amazing. So we started playing Broke and Hungry among other things on the streets.
“And I never forgot that album afterwards. So when I finally decided that I was going to learn to play mandolin in 2004, I just sat down and woodshedded with Yank Rachell records for two years and drove my violin-playing wife absolutely mad. She said, it sounds terrible, I gotta go in the other room! But finally, I got pretty good at it. And next thing I was on a Yank Rachell tribute album in the States. Then all of a sudden, I started getting gigs internationally. And after that, it just took off, and my blues mandolin and the albums did well. I just love what Yank and Sleepy John do. And that’s what the song is about. It’s a tribute homage to them both.”
The last song on the album, I Can’t Feel at Home, is an interesting one to me because it’s an old Christian song and I remember it hearing it being sung by Jim Reeves. We had Jim Reeves records in my home when I was growing up, and I really hated it. And all of that sort of music, although I must admit that I’ve mellowed somewhat and wouldn’t mind listening to those old Jim records now – sadly long gone. But Bert’s version really transformed it for me – it really lifts the song into a different dimension.
“It’s kind of interesting – well, have you heard the Woody Guthrie parody of it – I Don’t Have a Home in this World Anymore. Oh, you gotta listen to that. The first recording that I actually heard of the song was the Carter family. Because it’s an old Southern gospel song that’s been around for a long time. A lot of country artists have done it and then copyrighted it by changing the words slightly for themselves. I heard Geoff Muldaur’s version and was super inspired. He’s a great guitar player and a very soulful singer. And then I decided I was going to do it with DADGAD tuning, which is the tuning that I use for Irish music. The song sounds very different using that kind of tuning. And then I slowed it down and I did some little bluesy kind of things with it.”
Bert Deivert has been making music professionally for close to 50 years. I asked him if, looking back, he have known when he started out what he knows now, would he still have pursued his musical career?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it hasn’t been easy and there’s been some real tough times. My wife, thinks I’m obsessed by music, which I am. I mean, she’s a musician, a trad Fiddler that grew up with it, so it’s in our blood. But she thinks I get into this sort of tunnel vision thing with my music. But she understands that, she appreciates that at the same time.”
When you listen to I Ain’t Leavin’, you appreciate what a talented musician Bert Deivert is, and the richness of his musical experience. It’s a fine album of well-crafted songs, good tunes, a traditional, bluesy vibe and masterful story-telling. Definitely one to get in your collection.