- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

DURHAM, N.C. — John Dee Holeman spent a lifetime working in tobacco and driving backhoes while occasionally moonlighting at house parties as a guitar-picking bluesman.
Glenn Hinson, then a student at Duke University, came to Mr. Holeman's door sometime in 1976 determined to persuade him to play the Eno River Festival.
"I didn't think I was up to it, but he kept encouraging me to try it," Mr. Holeman says.
The invitation resulted in the revival of a Durham-based blues tradition first made popular in the 1930s by musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller and the Rev. Gary Davis two former Durham residents and one that has influenced musicians from the Grateful Dead to Garth Brooks.
Mr. Holeman, 73, has gone on to tour in this country, Europe, Asia and Africa.
"A lot of people [are] crazy about my playing," he says.
The style Mr. Holeman plays is also called the Piedmont blues, a lighter, ragtime-influenced version of the somber Mississippi Delta blues. It is distinguished by a complex, two-finger, guitar-picking style.
The lyrics, written mostly for black audiences of the 1930s and '40s, touch on universal themes hard times, booze, women and love.
At that time, Durham was the center of an enormous tobacco industry where, from August to December, white and black farmers from eastern North Carolina brought their crop for auction.
A trip to town could last as long as three days while farmers waited to see what price the leaf would bring. During that time, the visitors would quench their appetites with moonshine, prostitutes, good food and music, says Mr. Hinson, now head of the folklore department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Musicians mixed, with old-time string bands and blues players sometimes playing together regardless of race.
"Music was this place in America, not the only place, but certainly the most accepted place where all those color lines didn't have any place," says Scott Ainslie, a blues musician and historian who lives in Durham and performs throughout the eastern United States.
Mr. Fuller, Mr. Davis and others such as harmonica player Sonny Terry and washboardist Bull City Red made as much in a day during market as they made in an ordinary week playing at lunchtime outside the tobacco factories, Mr. Hinson says.
For these musicians, many of whom were disabled Mr. Fuller and Mr. Davis were blind no other Southern town of the time offered as much promise.
There is little physical evidence of that promise today. Mr. Hinson points out some of the traces on a recent drive through Durham.
A state historical marker dedicated last year on Fayetteville Street in the heart of the city's historically black Hayti neighborhood pays tribute to the "Bull City blues." A short drive away, the city has its own marker near Mr. Fuller's grave site, the exact location of which is unknown.
Mr. Fuller, the most prominent figure in the Piedmont blues, recorded more than 130 songs, and his "Step It Up and Go" became a staple for every bluesman in the country, Mr. Ainslie says.
Mr. Hinson can point out the double-shotgun house on Colfax Street where Mr. Fuller lived before his death in 1941 of a kidney ailment when he was in his early 30s.
An unfinished clapboard house used as a juke joint in the 1930s still stands on Chapel Hill Road about halfway between Durham and Chapel Hill, a reminder of the raucous parties where the musicians experimented with their sound while couples danced.
The advent of World War II and the change in musical styles led to the near-demise of the blues scene in Durham.
Today, the Hayti Heritage Center is keeping the music alive with its annual Bull Durham Blues Festival in September, setting aside stage time for aging Piedmont blues players such as Etta Baker and Mr. Holeman.
"We're definitely looking at the last of the old cats," Mr. Ainslie says.
The music will live much longer in its influence on modern music, he says.
Mr. Terry and fellow musician Brownie McGhee left Durham for New York about the time of Mr. Fuller's death. There, they ran a teaching studio and mingled with Pete Seeger, Ry Cooder and other white musicians of the 1960s folk revival.
Modern country music also has some elements of Piedmont blues, with the jumpy, twangy guitar solos of Garth Brooks' recordings echoing Mr. Fuller's rags of 60 years ago.
"This area played a pivotal role in how guitars are handled," Mr. Ainslie says.
Mr. Holeman plucked out some of his first tunes as a child while waiting overnight for the family's tobacco crop to cure. He picked up more after coming to Durham and watching some of the older masters who were still in town.
He has developed his own style since then, adding elements of jazz and Delta blues, but he still recognizes his Durham roots.
"I'm very proud of it, to keep it going," he says. "I made a few bucks at it, too."


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