"I like to play slow blues, because my fingers have slowed down some," John Dee Holeman says of his style. But sometimes he's not as slow as his accompanist. "We needed to go a bit faster, but I don't think he gets it sometimes," says Holeman of a recent rendition of "Give Me Back My Wig" with sometime partner and Music Maker Relief Foundation head Tim Duffy. "I've been doing this stuff since I was 14. It's not something you pick right up."
Holeman performs versions of classic blues in a way you've not heard before. "Give Me Back My Wig is a sinister tale in his hands. When the protagonist in Holeman's version of the song asks for it back, he finds himself facing a "big ole gun." Holeman takes similar liberties with "High Heel Sneakers." When he finds out that the sneakers and dress aren't readily accessible for this particular girl's big night out, he makes tracks out of town to find a more suitable party girl with the right accessories closer at hand: "You red dress in the cleaners/ you shoes are in the sto'/ when I leave this town/ I won't be back no mo'." Holeman says, "I made that part up myself."
Holeman is a practitioner of the Piedmont blues style, which is becoming a lost art. "Nobody does those pretty chords anymore, 'cept maybe for Lightnin' Hopkins," the guitarist says. He credits prominent Piedmont bluesman Blind Boy Fuller as the artist who taught him to play, but he never saw Fuller, just learned by listening to his records. Holeman did see a lot of Brownie McGhee and Sunny Terry and appeared on some bills with them. "I liked how the harp fit around those pretty chords," he says.
Holeman doesn't use a pick to make his own pretty chords. "They kept flying off somewhere," he laughs. "So I just grew my fingernails out some and went from there." He uses a clawhammer style once in while, left over from the days when he played banjo a bit. But Holeman doesn't use any one specific technique for guitar. "It's an original style I put together," he says of his mellow Piedmont blues, which incorporates swing and ragtime licks in the melodies.
He used to accompany his performances with buckdancing, but he doesn't attempt that anymore since he suffered two strokes and sometimes has trouble walking. When he was still doing it, his daughter wanted to learn, but she couldn't get the hang of it. He came off stage still dancing, clicked his ankles together and whirled around, and she blurted out that she'd never be able to do that. "You're a school teacher," he said. "Be thankful you can do that instead."
Although Holeman was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1988 and an N.C. Folk Heritage Award in '94, he says he's not a professional musician. "Nope--don't get paid like one either," he chuckles. "Got talked into playing a little guitar at the Eno a few years back and have been doing it ever since."
John Dee Holeman plays at the Festival for the Eno on Monday, July 4. Tickets are $13 per day at the gate or $10 per day if bought before July 1. See www.enoriver.org/Festival/index.html for details.