Durham festival to honor blues master John Dee Holeman

CorrespondentMay 1, 2014 

The first SoDu Blues and Heritage Festival in Durham is a tribute to a local blues treasure, John Dee Holeman.

COURTESY OF JIMMY WILLIAMS — JIMMY WILLIAMS

  • Details

    What: SoDu Blues & Heritage Festival

    When: 1-6 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Greenwood Commons, 5402 NC Highway 55, Durham

    Cost: $10-$15 (free for ages 12 and under); Food Bank donations encouraged

    Info: triangleblues.com

At age 5 or 6, John Dee Holeman made his first guitar from an old cigar box and wire from a screen door.

Holeman, who turned 85 on April 4, grew up in Orange County looking to his older musical cousins for an example. “After I saw them playing – they were much older than me – they wouldn’t take no time,” Holeman said. “I practically learnt myself.”

Today, Holeman is an accomplished blues musician credited with the birth of “the Piedmont blues,” said Gary Messenger, president of the Triangle Blues Society.

“North Carolina has a particular style of blues indigenous to here,” Messenger said. “You’ve got the Piedmont blues master who, with a couple others, basically invented the style.”

On Saturday the Triangle Blues Society will host the first-ever Southern Durham Blues and Heritage Festival, featuring live music, food and crafts. Members of the society hope to share their love of the blues with festival-goers, and proceeds from the festival will benefit Holeman, who will also perform.

“It started out trying to do something for John Dee,” Messenger said, adding that the group originally planned to hold a benefit concert. “It evolved, and when we realized everyone wanted to partake, it turned into a festival.”

The event exploded because of Holeman’s importance to the genre, Messenger said.

“We could not accommodate all the bands who wanted to play for John Dee,” he said. “It’s just a way to show our admiration and respect.”

‘That ain’t no music’

Holeman, who was born in Hillsborough, bought his first guitar at age 14. He started playing on the street and at house parties, but he was then asked to perform at the Festival for the Eno.

That first public performance led to a long career during which Holeman sang and played with other blues greats and met big names like B.B. King and Lightin’ Hopkins. Holeman has also performed at all 34 years of the Festival for the Eno.

For Holeman, the blues are all about feeling. “It’s more of an ear thing,” he said. “I don’t know a note of music.”

In his opinion, the blues are much different from music today. “They’re interested in rap, pop,” he said of young people today. “That ain’t no music.”

Messenger agrees. “Today, I think a lot of music lacks emotion,” he said. “The blues are happy. The blues are sad. The blues tell a story.”

The Durham festival is not only a time to honor Holeman, he said, but also an opportunity for festival attendees to learn more about the blues.

“You wanna give people the chance to find their blues locally,” Messenger said. “If people can feel the blues, they’ll understand it.

Play it forward

“We want to have this seed re-germinate and grow a little deeper in this area where it came from,” he said.

Messenger encourages attendees to bring their families to the festival and to pass the blues down through the generations, a phenomenon he calls “playing it forward.”

Holeman is also excited to see people coming out to enjoy the blues. “I think it’s a good thing because maybe somebody will be able to carry it on when the old guys pass on,” he said.

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