Holeman is among the most widely celebrated of traditional Piedmont musicians. A native of Orange County, North Carolina, Holeman has performed at the National Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall, and has conducted multiple overseas tours--many of which were sponsored by the U.S. State Department--to such faraway locations as Thailand, Africa, Singapore, and Turkey. Now in his 80s, Holeman continues to perform regularly throughout North Carolina. He is featured in the book Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America.
Born in 1929, Holeman spent the first six years of his life in Hillsborough before his family moved to a 100-acre farm in northern Orange County. Holeman grew up on the farm and began playing the blues at the age of 14. His first guitar was a Sears Silvertone model that he bought for $15, and he began to learn the rudiments of blues chording from his uncle and cousins. "I listened to 78s like 'Step It Up and Go' by [famed Piedmont blues musician] Blind Boy Fuller, the Grand Ole Opry, and I heard others play at pig-picking parties," remembers Holeman. "I was good for catching on."
Working the tobacco grown on his family's land, a chore that required the budding guitarist to stay up through the night in order to tend to the fires that cured the crop. provided Holeman with another opportunity to hone his rapidly developing musical skills. "My guitar kept me company . . . so I wouldn't go to sleep," recalls the musician.
Holeman moved to Durham in 1954 to take a job with the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company after concluding that farming wouldn't bring in enough money to support himself and his family. By day, Holeman operated heavy machinery for the tobacco giant; by night, he supplemented his income by playing blues and "patting juba." Juba, the use of complex hand rhythms to provide timing for dancers, is a centuries-old tradition among Africans and African Americans. Where Holeman grew up, it was customary when party musicians took a break for the males to engage in competitive solo dancing accompanied only by hand or "patting" rhythms. Juba refers to both the complex hand rhythms and the dance traditionally done to them. The dance done to the juba rhythm is also called "buckdance," "bust down," and "jigging." "Patting" is distinguished from clapping by virtue of the varied pitches the patting hand elicits from the arms, chest, thighs, and flanks.
On weekends he played at private functions and house parties, often in the company of musicians who had learned first-hand from blues greats like Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Reverend Gary Davis. It wasn't until 1976, when he played at Durham's Bicentennial Festival, an event that drew more than 100,000 people, that Holeman received wider public attention as one of the Piedmont's most gifted bluesmen. Since that time, Holeman has been a highly visible performer of Piedmont blues, in the process meeting musical luminaries such as B. B. King and Lightnin' Hopkins, and recording with Mebane natives Joe and Odell Thompson, as well as with Cool John Ferguson and Taj Mahal.
Though he never chose to pursue music as a full-time profession, Holeman has played at festivals around the country and in concerts in Europe and Africa, where he also conducted workshops for students and other performers.