From “Hands in Harmony” by Tim Barnwell

David Holt is a musician, storyteller, historian, television host and entertainer. Earning  four Grammy Awards, he has performed and recorded with many of his mentors including Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. David is host of public television’s Folkways, a North Carolina program that takes the viewer through the southern mountains visiting traditional craftsmen and musicians. He hosted The Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain, Celebration Express and American Music Shop and was a frequent guest on Hee Haw, Nashville Now and The Grand Ole Opry. David hosts Riverwalk: Classic Jazz from the Landing for Public Radio International.

While collecting the traditional music of the mountains, Holt discovered folktales and true-life stories, which he weaves into his concerts along with a wide variety of musical instruments. David tours the country performing solo, with his band The Lightning Bolts, and with Doc Watson.

“I got interested in percussion at fourteen and started out as a rock and roll drummer in California. In the late 60’s I fell in love with the sound of clawhammer banjo and ventured to Asheville, North Carolina looking for old time banjo players. Asheville was full of great mountain musicians in those days.  Byard Ray, Obray Ramsey and Tommy Hunter were some of the first people I met. Having grown up it Texas, I really wanted to get back to the South. I returned to California, finished college, then decided to move to Asheville in 1973. All I wanted to do was learn how to play the claw-hammer banjo better. I had no intention of making a living playing music.

At that time folks like Tommy Jarrell, Dellie Norton, Walt Davis, Etta Baker  were between 70 and 90 years old. Their musical repertoires were from the early 1900s. These folks couldn’t slow their music down and teach me, but if I watched closely and taped them and played with them, I could learn the songs and tunes. These became long lasting relationships, developed over many years. I guess I was in search of musical grandparents and I found lots of them.
I learned about traditional ballad singing from Dellie and saw how it fit into one’s life. It’s not an exciting art form, but it’s a really deep one. I learned a lot about life from her as well. Dellie was completely herself, as grounded as anyone can be. Her motto was “be good to everybody, try to love everybody and they’ll love you.”
There’s a soulfulness about mountain music that really can’t be put into words. That’s why it’s expressed in music. There’s a power in the fact that it has been hand rubbed and reworked by generations of people, not just by one guy trying to make a buck by writing a song, or trying to please an audience. It’s hundreds of people that have passed these songs down. Take a fiddle tune like Soldier’s Joy. Nobody can say how old that song is, hundreds of years I’d say. It’s been reworked and remolded all these years. When I play it I’m getting the spirit of those old people and the power they had. Hopefully a little bit of that comes through me. I feel like traditional music restructures the brain in a positive way; sort of like mantras that you say over and over.
The isolation of the mountains played a part in keeping the purity of traditional music. But the minstrel shows of the 1850s, Civil War and vaudeville tunes, blues, early jazz and swing influenced and slowly changed the sound. Many of those tunes are still heard, not as antiques, but as something that’s actually still being played by musicians today.
Records and the radio appeared in the early 1920s. Until that time the music was localized with very distinct regional styles. Just like the people, the music was very individualized. People were quirky in those days, and communities accepted that. It was part of the deal. Now everybody’s much more homogenized, and the music is too. I was fortunate as a young man to see the end of that era. It doesn’t exist anymore.
For a traditional music to be healthy it needs several types of players and fans. There need to be fans that just love to listen. Then you need musicians that love it and sit at home and play for themselves and their friends. One step beyond that are the guys that are really good, sometimes better than the professionals, who don’t want to get out on the road performing. Last are the professional players who are breaking new ground and introducing the music to new audiences so that the music continues to survive. It needs all those levels, because it’s a living music and needs to be played to be alive. People hear a tune and say, “Man, that song is really catchy.” It is sort of like something you catch, and if people aren’t out there passing it around nobody’s going to be bit by the bug. It’s important that professionals out there opening the door and spreading the music around.
To me it’s really incredible to see how all the influences that came into the mountains mixed together. The English and Scots-Irish brought their music with them, but when it mixed with the African-American music early on, it became distinctly American. This area was very isolated and there weren’t many black people, but the black musicians around here influenced a lot of people. That mix created a powerful sound. a hybrid that was attractive and strong musically. You don’t hear a banjo tune and say, “Dang, that sounds like blues.” But if you went back a hundred years it’s a very bluesy thing, because the banjo was African first of all.

Those old bluesy notes that you hear in banjo didn’t come from the white people. They heard black people doing that, and added it to it, so it’s a pretty wonderful amalgamation.
I got a lot from people here in the mountains, but I hope people remember me as a person who gave back, too. I think only performers would know this, but there’s something that happens when you have a group of people together. You, as the performer, create a spirit of togetherness in that room and the audience leaves, saying, “That was fun and inspiring. I really enjoyed that and want to hear more.” That’s an amazing thing to have happen, and when it’s over, it’s gone, but people carry it with them. I really love that. It’s powerful, it’s beautiful and then it’s gone, just like life.”