"His playing and singing have that special feel like they’re pouring out as natural as breathing. He’s such a genuine bluesman that I want to touch him and hope it rubs off on me.” - Harvey Arnold, Music Maker guitarist
How We Helped:
John Dee Holeman was welcomed into the Music Maker family in 1995, and has received monthly stipends for prescription medicine, help with car repairs, and guitars. Music Maker has recorded three CDs for John Dee and booked him for tours in Switzerland, France, Germany, and the United States over the years. He is featured in the book Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America.
More about John Dee:
One of Music Maker’s most renowned and respected artists, John Dee Holeman spent the first six years of his life in the town of Hillsborough, Orange County, North Carolina, barely a mile from MM’s present office. A gentlemanly, gracious man, he speaks in a lilting, soft-spoken manner.
“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.”
John Dee has made a living and then some. He has performed at the National Folk Festival, at Carnegie Hall, and has made overseas tours. In 1988, he was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is proud of a certificate signed and given to him by then-President Reagan. His skill as a guitarist, singer, and buckdancer have carried him far beyond his small-town and country roots. It was his skill as a guitarist that first set him apart.
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.”
In recent years John Dee has been a regular artist at Music Maker’s summer Warehouse Concerts series in Durham, held onsite at the West Village development on the site of the old L&M factories and warehouses. Organized in partnership with the City of Durham Parks and Recreation Department, the concerts are produced among West Village condos and stores where John Dee and his L&M co-workers used to produce cigarettes for the world. After his move to Durham, he played with musicians who learned first-hand from such bluesmen as Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Reverend Gary Davis, who played for rent parties and outside the bustling cigarette factories.
Although John Dee played his guitar for private functions while engaged in his regular day jobs, it wasn’t until folklorist Glen Hinson asked him to play for the Bicentennial Festival in Durham that his music career took off. “He said there would be 500 or 5,000 people. I told him, ‘I can’t face that many people- I’m not that good.’ He said to do the same thing that I do at my house or at a pig-picking, to do what I know. He just about begged me. I went out there and everybody like to have a good time. It made me feel real good.”
Since then, John Dee has been “just about all over- Thailand, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey, Canada and six weeks in Africa. I met B.B. King and Chuck Berry and played with Joe and Odell Thompson (from Mebane, N.C.) in Boston.” He also met Lighnin’ Hopkins, who originally recorded a song in John Dee’s repertoire, “Give Me Back My Wig (Let Your Doggone Head Go Bald).” Some of his foreign trips were sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In addition to caring for his late wife Janet when she became ill for several years, John Dee managed to keep a regular schedule of foreign and local gigs with partners such as harp player Billy Stevens and the late piano player Fris Holloway. More recently he has recorded on the Music Maker label, backed by well-known players such as Taj Mahal and Cool John Ferguson. In 2008 Zeke Hutchens produced John Dee’s most recent CD, “You Got To Lose, You Can’t Win All The Time.”
When John Dee turned 80 in 2009, his many friends surprised him with the gift of a new electric guitar, which made his Piedmont blues sound as fresh as ever. His rapport with younger players is reflected in the comments of fellow MM artist Harvey Arnold, who has played bass and guitar with John Dee.
“His playing and singing have that special feel like they’re pouring out as natural as breathing, “says Arnold. “He’s such a genuine bluesman that I want to touch him and hope it rubs off on me.” Whether he’s playing and singing a ragtime like Fuller’s “Come On Down To My House”, a traditional blues like “John Henry”, or a city blues like Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, John Dee Holeman is the real deal, a much-loved performer and man.
– Written by Peter Kramer
- Awarded the North Carolina Heritage Award by the N.C. Arts Council
- Collaborates with Taj Mahal
- Performs at Pease Auditorium for Black History Month
- Recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from NEA