Heritage Search

Thomas Burt
Folk/Traditional Music Durham
1989 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient

Blues guitarist Thomas Burt grew up hearing the reels, rags and spirituals that gave form to black musical expression in North Carolina's eastern Piedmont at the turn of the century. Born in 1900 near Raleigh to a family of sharecroppers, Mr. Burt gained his early knowledge of music informally within a family and community setting. His father played accordion for local dances, his mother sang hymns as she performed the daily chores, and friends dropped by often to pick the banjo or play tunes on the fiddle.

By his early teens, Mr. Burt had joined the music-making, first learning banjo and later mastering the guitar. It was on the guitar that he earned his reputation, playing at house parties, in tobacco warehouses, and at community gatherings from the 1920s through the '40s. He became a prominent figure in Durham's flourishing blues community, performing alongside local masters such as Sonny Terry and Blind Boy Fuller. His occupations included sawmilling, laying railroad track, farming, and working seasonal jobs in Durham's tobacco factories.

The blues faded in popularity within the black community in the 1950s and '60s but enjoyed a resurgence of support in the following decades, primarily by white audiences. During that time, Mr. Burt was frequently invited to give concerts and to perform at festivals. Often accompanied by his late wife Pauline, a fine singer of hymns and sacred songs, he appeared at the National Folk Festival, the National Downhome Blues Festival and the North Carolina Folklife Festival. In addition, his music was featured on two albums and three television documentaries. Mr. Burt received the North Carolina Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award in 1987.