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Stories and Songs From a Bygone Era

David Holt has gleaned music and tales from old-timers of the South, creating his own niche as a preservationist and entertainer.


The multifaceted David Holt is one of those rare birds in music--an avid musicologist who also plays like there's no tomorrow.

A Grammy nominee who has released such potent traditional albums as "Grandfather's Greatest Hits" and "I Got a Bullfrog: Folk Songs for the Fun of It," Holt has become an important player in the preservation of traditional American music. He is, to boot, a late-40s but grizzled veteran in the storytelling revival, and a historian with a regular presence on television and radio. But can he do balloon animals?

Armed with old-time songs, a satchel of stories and his custom-designed "Thunderware" drum machine system, Holt will be swinging through the area, playing at the Church of Religious Science in Ventura on Saturday, and on Sept. 20 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Holt spoke recently from a hotel in San Antonio, where he was working on several programs for the National Public Radio series he hosts, "Riverwalk: Classic Jazz From the Landing." The program focuses on classic jazz, a relatively new area of interest to him. But the lore of bygone American music has long been fertile soil for Holt.

Holt has gathered--on tape and in memory--vintage American music, primarily from the Appalachian region of the country. The pre-World War II style shares roots with bluegrass, heavy on fiddle and banjo.

"I've spent 25 years collecting mountain music from these old-timers and here I get to hang with these jazz guys," said Holt of his "Riverwalk" duties. "They were alive at that same time, during the '20s, '30s and '40s, but were playing urban jazz music. Now I've been able to deal with both sides of the coin from that period, which was really a sort of musical renaissance."


A native of Texas, he moved with his family to Southern California and began playing drums in rock bands as a teenager. He studied art and biology at UC Santa Barbara, but felt he was being pulled in another direction.

"I was just reading a letter I wrote my parents in my first year of college," he said. "It said, 'I feel like the job I'm going to have doesn't exist yet.' And, actually, it didn't. I'm just a firm believer in following what you love to do and what your interests are."

Initially, his driving interest was the banjo, still the main ax for this multi-instrumentalist. After school, Holt headed to North Carolina, where he has lived since 1973. "I wanted to learn from the old people themselves, and not from records," he explained. "I began getting stories and songs and seeing that [the culture] was so much more complex than just banjo, fiddle and guitar."

In North Carolina, Holt worked for a sign painter by day and spent his evenings collecting songs firsthand from players who'd grown up around the turn of the century. Soon he realized that for every song there was a story--either in it or about it. "I realized that the stories had a lot of power--as much power as the music did," he said. "At that time, there was no one called a 'storyteller.' The last storyteller, I think, had been Mark Twain."

But, in fact, he wasn't alone. In 1976, Holt went to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., and discovered dozens of kindred spirits. More and more, he has incorporated storytelling into his performing.

"I'm finding that, by weaving the stories in, I can have an audience of all ages, from kids to grandparents, teenagers and everything in between. I feel like there are pieces in my concerts that will entertain every single person there."


As a musicologist, the songs and stories interested Holt. But as a musician, he was fueled by a love of rhythm. "When I moved to the Southern mountains, I found all these incredible rhythm things--from bones to the washboard and the bottle, the paper bag--that people actually played as musical instruments, not just as a gimmick."

In his studies, he's learned to play all those and more. He'll bring some along during his show, in addition to his newly invented Thunderware, which uses drum machine triggers sewn into a garment. He taps out rhythms in hambone body-slapping fashion and creates the sound of an extensive drum kit.

Such tinkering is in his blood. Holt's father was an electronic engineer, inventor and, as it happens, a spoon- and bone-player. "I've always invented stuff, too," Holt said. Thunderware is, "basically, like wearing a drum set. When you see someone just tapping on himself and it's making all these incredible sounds, it's kind of fun."

Fun seems to be a prerequisite for Holt, who practices what he teaches. He gives concerts from Alaska to North Carolina, and compares sharing the music to "putting your arms around the audience." He's still collecting music from old-timers, practicing on his instruments, gathering well-worn stories. And, he said, "I'm on my way to becoming an old-timer as well."

True to his college epistle, Holt has invented the job that suits him.


* WHAT: David Holt.

* WHERE: Church of Religious Science, 101 S. Laurel St., in Ventura.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

* HOW MUCH: $12.

* CALL: 646-6997.

* FYI: Holt also performs at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. $10-12. Call 449-2787.

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