Roosevelt holts: Presenting The Country Blues

Roosevelt Holts was a country bluesman of considerable skill who in a small way was caught up in the blues boom of the 1960's, finally getting the opportunity to record scattered sides and a couple of LP's in the 1960's and 1970's. Holts, who was born in 1905, likely would have achieved greater recognition if he had gotten the chance to make records in the 1920's and 1930's as David Evans emphasizes in his liner notes: "If he had been able to get to a record studio in the 1930's, his records would now be highly prized collector's items, reissued on albums and talked about by blues fans everywhere. He might have even been "rediscovered" and brought north to the cities for concerts and coffee house engagements before an audience of young whites who were not even born when he recorded his famous numbers." None of this happened of course and Holts toiled in relative obscurity while those who did make records in the early days were rediscovered and achieved adulation among those "young whites." These were men like Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt to name the bigger stars. There were several artists from the same era who, like Holts, never got that early break but were swept up in the blues revival net and went on to achieve a measure of success such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams.

Why Holts never achieved equitable recognition is unclear but we owe a debt to his patron, folklorist David Evans, who is responsible for just about all of Holts' recordings. It was Evans' investigation into Tommy Johnson in the late 1960’s that brought Holts to light. Evans uncovered and recorded a slew of still active musicians who learned directly from Johnson including Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse, Tommy’s brother Mager Johnson and Roosevelt Holts.  K.C. Douglas, Shirley Griffith and Jim Brewer were others who learned directly from Johnson but were recorded by others. As Evans recalled in an interview to Rob Hutten "I followed a trail of musicians connected with Tommy Johnson. Babe had known Tommy slightly and Roosevelt knew him a lot better, and that led to two of Tommy's brothers and any number of other singers that had been associated with Tommy Johnson."

Holts was born in 1905 near Tylertown, Mississippi, and he took up the guitar when he was in his mid-twenties. He started to get serious about music in the late 1930's when he encountered Tommy Johnson. Johnson had married Holts' cousin Rosa Youngblood and moved to Tylertown with her. Around 1937 both men moved to Jackson playing all around town and surrounding towns. During this period he also played with Ishmon Bracey, Johnnie Temple, Bubba Brown, and One Legged Sam Norwood. Holts eventually settled in Bogalusa, Louisiana where Evans recorded him.

Evans began recording Holts in 1965 resulting in two LP's (both out of print): Presenting The Country Blues (Blue Horizon,1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (Arhoolie, 1969-1970) plus the collection The Franklinton Muscatel Society featuring his earliest sides through 1969 which is` available on CD.  In addition selections recorded by Evans appeared on the following anthologies (all out of print): Goin' Up The Country (Decca, 1968), The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (Matchbox, 1972), South Mississippi Blues (Rounder, 1974 ?), Way Back Yonder …Original Country Blues Volume 3 (Albatros, 1979 ?), Giants Of Country Blues Vol. 3 (Wolf, 199?) and a very scarce 45 ("Down The Big Road" b/w "Blues On Mind") cut for the Bluesman label in 1969.

Roosevelt Holts I've heard most of these recordings and I think Presenting The Country Blues is among his best although I know a couple of folks who prefer Roosevelt Holts and Friends which features him on electric guitar. Holts is a fine singer, possessing a strong burnished voice and a rhythmic, delicate guitar style as Evans describes: "Roosevelt's guitar style is one of the most subtle to be found on records, with its delicate touch and rhythmic shifts. He often extends his guitar lines beyond the expected standard patterns to produce greater variety." Lyrically Holts draws on songs he learned as a younger man as well as the vast storehouse of floating blues verses. Among the covers are Leroy Carr's 1928 classic "Prison Bound Blues" and Memphis Minnie's 1930 number "She Put Me Outdoors" although Holts takes it at a much slower tempo. "Prison Bound Blues" was likely picked up from Tommy Johnson who was known to play the number. As for the latter number he may have picked it up through Minnie's husband Joe McCoy who was active on the Jackson scene before he moved to Memphis. Johnnie Temple was also part of the rich Jackson scene and Holts covers his celebrated "Lead Pencil Blues" which Temple cut at his first session in 1935. Of this song Evans writes "this style of guitar playing with its subtle rhythm shifts between duple and triple patterns, is a splendid example  of the type of music then current in Jackson." Holts picked up a number of songs from Tommy Johnson and on this album turns in superb readings of "Big Road Blues" and "Maggie Campbell Blues." Holts also recorded Johnson's "Big Fat Mamma Blues" on a compilation. A couple of Holts' friend appear on this record including Babe Stovall from Tylertown who was the one who introduced Evans to Holts. His second guitar on "Feelin' Sad And Blue" adds some extra rhythmic push to the song with the two complementing each other superbly. Harmonica blower L.H. Lane plays on "The Good Book Teach You" as Holts lays down some fine bottleneck. Apparently the two had known each other for some time and he just popped into the studio for this one song before leaving minutes later. Holts is a good bottleneck player as he also demonstrates on the moving gospel number "I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore" and "Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall."

Unfortunately, outside of one collection, all of Roosevelt Holts' recordings are out of print which I suppose is fitting for an artist that was largely neglected during his lifetime. Hopefully the Blue Horizon label, who are in the midst of an extensive reissue of their catalog, will see fit to re-release Presenting The Country Blues.

Maggie Campbell Blues (MP3)

Feelin' Sad And Blue (MP3)

I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore (MP3)

Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall (MP3)

The Good Book Teach You (MP3)

Big Road Blues (MP3)