Born and raised in the Piedmont, John Dee Holman is a self-taught musician, and to blues aficionados, the man when it comes to being a living, performing exponent of the Piedmont Blues.
While the Delta Blues went north to become "Chicago Blues" and Texas bluesmen pioneered the West Coast Blues, the northern migration of African Americans from the Carolinas never resulted in any real "New York Blues" movement. For one reason, the Piedmont Blues developed as primarily a guitar-oriented sound--an instantly recognizable picking style played by the likes of Blind Boy Fuller that lent itself to acoustic, rather than electric, guitar (electrified, it's got more of a Lightnin' Hopkins sound). Thought to be derived from African-American banjo picking, this style--using the thumb to pluck out a rhythmic bass line while your fingers pick out a melody--is the blues tradition Holman carries on.
We visit the still-spry 72-year-old at the home he shares with his wife, Janet, in an inner-city Durham neighborhood. Although he's suffered a series of strokes in the past few months, you'd never know it.
"My doctor told me, 'You're a strong man,'" Holman says, chuckling. The neat-as-a-pin, modest home features a coffee table covered with pictures of Holman's six children, "24 or there about" grandchildren and "'bout three or four" great grandchildren.
An electric guitar case leans against the television, which he flips on and turns to a news channel while he finishes dinner (he graciously offers some ribs). There's a new model Fender amp against the couch; Holman's recently returned from a gig in Switzerland. He's disgusted with our new airport security: "That the biggest bunch of crap--took my nail clipper, and I'm a guitar player!" And when he talks, he accents the word "guitar" on the first syllable, like a real bluesman.
Born in rural Orange County in 1929, Holman, a farm boy, grew up 18 miles north of Hillsborough in a family with four brothers and sisters each. He started playing on an acoustic Sears Silvertone guitar that "sound real good--brand new," that he bought in downtown Durham's former Five Points area. "My brother and my daddy both play, but they didn't show me nothing," Holman recalls.
He'd keep himself awake nights playing tunes, while he tended the tobacco curing in the family's tobacco barn. "It's something like puttin' your bread in the oven; give it time to brown, was what it was. Get your green tobacco, get it yellow and feed it real slow 'til you dry it out. I did that about all my life so I started messin' with the guitar. It was all the company I had," he recalls. He also learned from watching other players and listening to records. Early on, he was a Bill and Charlie Monroe fan. Then he heard the Piedmont Blues.
"I like that: Guitar Gabriel, all them came out--and they was by theyself, y'know? I felt that I could do it by myself like they did--something like Blind Boy Fuller and Guitar Gabriel and Lightnin' Hopkins, that style--I do like that style. I kind of based it on that."
Holman left the family farm when he was 24--"I had enough of that"--and headed to Durham. "Got a wife since I was on my own." He learned how to operate heavy machinery the same way he learned to play guitar--by watching. Holman gained community fame as a buck dancer (an earlier form of tap, not unlike tap dancing and clogging crossed) and tap dancer, as well as a fine guitar picker and singer.
"I play house parties, pig pickins; that was good. I'd play a while, then make me a plate, get me something to drink, then pick some more."
Holman would have remained a secret community treasure if not for Glenn Hinson with UNC-Chapel Hill's folklore program, who looked him up. At Hinson's urging, Holman made his first "professional" performance at Durham's Festival for the Eno. He was 60 years old.
"He'd heard about me and said, 'I need you. People are startin' to have festivals and I want you to be an attendant.' I'd never did those. It was always just 15, 20 people showin' up at a house, and he's speakin' something like about 5,000. I said, 'Man, no.' I said, 'I can't face those people.' So I said, 'I just play for house parties, not a big audience like this,' and I said, 'I'm subject for all kind of mistakes, I really don't know even how to operate.' 'Just do what you know,' they said. So I just did my thing, y'know? And good god, they thought I was the best thing ... the King Bee.
"Since that time, let me think, I been about all over the world. Oh, good god, everywhere: Asia, Africa, Bangkok, Honolulu, China, Hong Kong, Winnipeg, Chicago, all around, I been there. ... Met like B.B. King, Lightin' Hopkins, Bill McGhee and Sonny Terry and all, Chuck Berry." In fact, at a Bull Durham Blues Festival in 1988, Holman joined McGhee on stage to trade licks, after which McGhee told the crowd, "I got someone to carry it on, you don't need me."
These days, Holman's tour schedule is slowing down. His wife needs constant medical attention (a nurse comes while he's at his day job) and, though he picks up a dobro and serenades us with a crisp selection of blues-ified Christmas standards and blues classics, he says his fingers aren't as quick as they used to be (or his dance step, for that matter).
"I used to be just crazy 'bout tap dancin' and buck dancing; but my back jumped again.
"Got a slipped disc on my construction job, once you knock your back out again it never gets back. I work; I just got to be particular how I do it.
"Have to get me somebody else [to carry on The blues]. My fingers is getting stiff."