Kevin ‘B.F.’ Burt, International Blues Challenge champion, reflects on Iowa’s rich blues history

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Coralville resident Kevin Burt made history at the International Blues Festival. — photo courtesy of Kevin Burt

Kevin “B.F.” Burt is unstoppable.

As a young adult working five jobs (two full-time, three part-time) in Iowa City after a football injury in his senior year of college derailed his intended future, music was the last thing on Burt’s mind. But once he got started — auditioning as a singer for a band at the insistence of one of his bosses (whose praise at his ability was met with a characteristically self-effacing “Alright, whatever”) — his tenacity, fearlessness and ingenuity set him on a trajectory that inevitably led toward his win this winter at the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

Burt was the second Iowan to win an award at the festival (Des Moines’ Rob Lumbard won Best Self-Produced CD in 2016), the first Iowan to win in the Solo/Duo category and the first artist in the festival’s 34-year history to sweep the solo categories — he also won the Solo/Duo Cigar Box Guitar Award for most promising acoustic player and the Lee Oskar Harmonica Award.

Not bad for someone who only learned to play guitar and harmonica 12 years into his musical career, when his band backed off of their demanding performance schedule and he needed to branch out into solo gigs. He’s always been making it up as he goes along, refusing to be stopped by little obstacles like not knowing how to play an instrument and wearing his heart, and his progress, on his sleeve.

“I’m a different beast from most of the musicians in the area,” Burt said. “Everybody worries about trying to perfect their craft before they share it with the world, and the world’s not perfect … I’ve always embraced the imperfections, and I’m willing to show people that I’m not the most skilled. I become more and more skilled, but I do it all in front of everybody … There’s a lot of my world that’s been learned from the stage.”

The same can be said for his biggest passion, the area when his voice brightens most as we talk on the phone during his drive to Des Moines for a show: blues education. Burt is effusive about the history of blues in Iowa — and, like much of his life, it started and was learned, in a sense, from the stage, when he served as a living exhibition at the Smithsonian.

In 1996, the sesquicentennial both of Iowa and of the Smithsonian, Burt was chosen by the state of Iowa to participate in a project of the American Folklife Center (Harry Oster, a folklorist and musicologist who was involved with the Folklife Archives, was also an Iowan).

“I got the opportunity to be a living exhibition at the Smithsonian representing the state of Iowa as a blues artist, and part of my responsibility was to have an educational component, so that’s when I started doing my research to be able to give accurate historical stories for the state of Iowa from the perspective of a musician.”

What he found was a deep and broad history of the blues here in Iowa, a subject he loves to discuss.

“I’ve always thought that we should be [known for blues music], because there’s a bigger history and connection to blues that Iowa has than most people realize,” Burt said. “Iowa’s always been kind of that pit stop for a lot of folks … Those connections exist, and have always existed, and it’s because there have always been pockets of African Americans living in those communities, that had connections to the south, that brought entertainers to the area.”

“There’s a lot more folklorish kind of stories that connect Iowa to the roots of American music than Iowans and Iowa celebrate,” he said.

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He discussed the importance of the Rock Island and Sioux railroad lines, and the extension of service into areas like Burlington, the Quad Cities, Waterloo and Des Moines. There were at one time, Burt said, five dance halls in Oelwein, Iowa, on the Sioux line, the city where his parents met (their story — that of a black man and a white woman together in a time before interracial marriage was legal here — is a fascinating piece of Iowa history itself).

“We’re halfway to everywhere,” he said, “so when people are touring, it’s difficult not to cross through the state of Iowa. It’s always been that way … it’s just a story untold. I hope to get the opportunity to share that story.”

Burt is a natural storyteller, a trait perfect for a passionate historian and educator. One story he told me places Cedar Rapids squarely at the crossroads of history, as a potential claimant to the title of birthplace of rock and roll.

“There’s one [story] about the Louis Jordan band being snowed in in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. During the time that they were here, there were still segregation laws in the state of Iowa, so after dark, they couldn’t be on the streets,” Burt said.

“Because they were snowed in, they spent more and more time rehearsing,” he continued.

“Everyone said that, after they left Cedar Rapids, their sound had changed. And a lot of folks feel that the Louis Jordan band was the band that introduced the concept of rock and roll to the world … There are some that theorize that that sound developed during that extra week or week and a half or two weeks that they were snowed in in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because all they could do was rehearse.”

Burt shares his knowledge of Iowa’s blues history with anyone who will listen. He’s gotten several opportunities through Iowa blues societies, including the Mississippi Valley Blues Society, which funds artists-in-residence at Iowa schools and holds BlueSKool children’s workshops at its annual festival, and the Central Iowa Blues Society, which has its own Blues in the Schools program (and is the organization that sends Iowa artists to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis each year). But those aren’t his only avenues for reaching students.

“A lot of it is just either music teachers or history teachers saying, ‘I would like this to be this,’ y’know; ‘I was wondering if you could …?’ and we figure out a way to make it happen.”

His research into blues history in Iowa comes primarily from stories. He gives a lot of credit to a book compiled by Des Moines Area Community College professor Hal Chase and edited by Iowa State University Press editor-in-chief Bill Silag, Outside In. As much as being about the music, he said, it’s a history of being black in Iowa.

When he isn’t educating Iowans about their musical past, Burt puts in a lot of time supporting nonprofit organizations in the eastern Iowa area. He performs regularly for the Domestic Violence Intervention Program’s Souper Bowl (which is coming up this month) and at events for Inside Out Reentry. He noted that nonprofits perform a crucial service, working to “shore up the foundations” of the community.

“As a musician, we count on our communities to make a choice,” Burt said. The public aren’t necessarily choosing between artists when they go out to a show, he explained, but choosing art over staying in, opening a bottle of wine and watching television. “Technically, if you support one, you’re supporting it all,” he said. “You left your house, you supported something somewhere. That’s important. So as a musician … my hope is that showing my support to those things that are unfortunately needed, the community looks at that and says, ‘You know what? The music industry itself, not just Kevin Burt, but those who are in music, they support the community as well,’ hopefully making it better for everybody.”

He believes that nonprofits and the valuable services that they provide are a big part of what makes our community a cool place to be. “Growing up, as a little kid, I was a comic book nerd, and that’s what superheros did. They helped everybody.”

“The last thing you want anything cool about your community to be is a cool memory,” he said of the importance of supporting nonprofits. “Cool memories suck, because that means that what’s cool about your community isn’t there anymore.”

This is as true about music as it is about nonprofits, and Burt’s connection to history is testament to that. In an email before our conversation, Burt said that his favorite thing about the International Blues Challenge was just being in Memphis.

“Knowing the historical significance of Beale St. Knowing the souls that sang and performed before me. Knowing that it was the only place Blacks could go out to in Memphis during segregation. Knowing I was around the corner from where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. You know that you’re breathing rare air. You know that this is some place to be held in reverence. You know you are in a historic space. That was the best part of this for me.”

Through his work in blues education, and in bringing the blues and especially Iowa’s blues history to the young people in our communities, Burt is ensuring that Iowa will be held in reverence as well, and that the blues in Iowa will be more than just a cool memory.

Genevieve Trainor, a singer and editor, is duly impressed by the rich musical history of her adopted state. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.