John Dee Holman
photograph by kinsley1
I recently discussed Blues Houseparty, a gathering of Piedmont blues musicians documented on film by Eleanor Ellis and available streaming on the web at Folkstreams. Since then, the film and the musicians have stayed on my mind; I’ve checked out some CDs from the library (Alan Lomax’s Deep River of Song: Virginia and the Piedmont) and found Guitar Man, a wonderful LP with John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, at a local record store. Blues Houseparty leaves an impression and will send you out to learn more about the Piedmont blues–thanks again to the good people at Folkstreams for sharing it with us all.
John Dee Holman brought a lot to the Houseparty–laughter, buck dancing, guitar-playing–and I’m happy to share more information on this man and his music. Though many of the folks featured in the documentary have passed away, Mr. Holman is still very much with us, and he is set to play as part of the Blues Warehouse concert series in Durham, North Carolina on July 22nd.
This series is affiliated with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that “helps the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs” while also reaching out to “present these musical traditions to the world so American culture will flourish and be preserved for future generations.” The Foundation also works to bring these musicians into contact with the next generation of Southern musicians, so that these traditions can continue to be rooted in the region.
Here’s a selection from the Foundation’s biography of Mr. Holman:
“I was born in 1929,” he says. “My father was Willy Holeman and my mother was born Annie Obie near Roxboro, North Carolina. Her daddy moved to Hillsborough and ran a flour mill. James Obie was my uncle; there are still Obies in Hillsborough. I lived on the Sam Latta place at first- he was the High Sheriff. There were three sisters and one brother. My parents are planted in the cemetery of Obie’s Chapel Church in Person County.” “In about 1935 we moved to a 100 acre farm on Gray Road in Northern Orange County. We would walk four miles to the store at Timberlake to get us some candy. We could play on Saturday or Sunday. You know, fix a swing in a tree, swing in a tire and things like that. One time I took a fender off a Model T Ford, got on a bank, put water on the bank, and slid right down to the bottom! I completed the fourth grade, then stopped; we weren’t compelled to attend then. I cut short my education because Daddy needed me to farm. I had to do what my Daddy said. I missed my education, but I’ve made a living so far.”When John Dee was 14 he bought a brand new Sears Silvertone guitar for $15. “I thought I had something!” he says. His uncle and cousin taught him a few chords. “I listened to 78’s like ‘Step It Up and Go’ by Blind Boy Fuller, the Grand Ole Opry, and heard others play at pig-picking parties. I was good for catching on. My guitar kept me company when I tended to tobacco in the barn so I wouldn’t go to sleep. You had to control the tobacco as it cured-you ran one heat to get the green out, then another to dry it out for cigarettes.”He moved to Durham in 1954 in reaction to farming’s financial shortcomings. “The government took over the farming and gave you an allotment of how much you could raise. Before that we raised as much as we could handle. If you went over the allotment at harvest time, they’d make you cut it down. In 1954 I got $200 for my portion of tobacco for the whole year.” “I went to the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company for work. You could get a three-room ‘shotgun’ house for $6 a week. I also operated heavy equipment, like hauling dirt.”
Though Mr. Holman was a highly sought-after musician and dancer for private parties, he did not appear on the folk and blues festival scene until encouraged by folklorist Glen Hinson in 1989. Since then, Mr. Holman has traveled to all corners of the globe, played with virtually every blues luminary, and has received the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship, the organization’s highest cultural award.
I’ll include a series of videos below. The first selection is an interview with Mr. Holman conducted by David Holt for the Folkways series on North Carolina Public Television; the second pair of videos features a performance from the 2011 Black History Month celebrations at Central Piedmont Community College.