Q&A with Hugh Holmes (aka Professor Harp) has the blues of Texas and the whole wide Delta coursing through his veins.

"The Blues and the socio-racial-politico ramifications....the Blues is first and foremost the ORIGINAL protest music against a corrupt racist system in North America since at least 1619. It is and will always be Black History regardless of commercialism and/or appropriation."

Hugh Holmes:

The Undaunted Professor Harp

Although born and raised as Hugh Holmes (aka Professor Harp) of Boston, Mass., the emanations from his harmonica and vocals make it clear that Professor Harp has the blues of Texas and the whole wide Delta coursing through his veins.  The Professor was a rock 'n' roll drummer until '69, when the Boston blues revival and a sterling performance he caught of blues harmonica great George Allen 'Harmonica' Smith, combined to lure him away from drums and into a full court press on the blues harp. "Undaunted!" he brags, by the vicissitudes of his life as blues man, front man, every kind of man, Professor Harp puts forth his commanding presence and exceptional talent, night after night. Primarily playing a sparse, yet full-sounding brand of no-nonsense, no-frills Texas style blues, Professor Harp specializes in what he calls, 'roots music'. "It's whatever makes me feel good and moves me, so to speak." Indeed it has evolved while continuing to move audiences for decades.                                                          Photo by Bobbi Lane 2012

Under the influence of many diverse blues greats, Professor Harp has developed a robust playing style. He often utilizes the Leslie rotating-speaker sound system to give his harp a Hammond organ timbre, while he alternately and simultaneously employs the standard or traditional 'electrified' blues harp. The Professor tops this off by singing the blues with an infectious fervor, supported at his strictest insistence by only top-flight musicians on guitar, bass, and drums. Professor Harp performed with various bands throughout the Northeast including legends Solomon Burke and Luther 'Guitar Jr.' Johnson and played live on NBC's Today Show. Among the legions of hot performances at rocking blues clubs, the memories that often stand out for The Professor are the nights his harp helped to swell the room, in a spontaneous jam with his old mentor, the inimitable bluesman Muddy Waters. Muddy and Professor Harp was the spring of '75 when a friend first introduced Hugh to Muddy Waters. Following his friend backstage at Boston's Paul's Mall, he found Muddy immersed in a game of Casino with bassist Calvin Jones. Muddy was unresponsive when it was suggested that Hughie Holmes should sit in on a few numbers. Holmes and his friend backed off. Yet, halfway through his show Muddy stopped and asked where that harp player was. The Professor was ready. Overcoming the sudden burning in his ears, Harp climbed on stage and miraculously grabbed exactly the right harmonica from his disorganized bag of harps. As usual he took the time to grease it up with Vaseline, and still jumped in without slowing down the show for a moment. From that day on Harp had a standing invitation to join in whenever Muddy took the stage. Harp says every show with Muddy was a learning experience and he cites Muddy as his greatest teacher. Muddy, in turn, called Hugh the professional of the Harp. Solomon Burke called him Professor Harmonica Holmes. After two greats anointed him with sobriquets, Hugh Holmes decided it was time to split the difference and became Professor Harp.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Well, the Blues to ME is TRUTH. It is the original protest music against a rotten system here in America. I relates the struggles of my people to survive slavery, racial discrimination, and its by-products from the 1600’s to the present day. Therefore, I revere it. That being said, I will tell it like it is----I AM NOT HAPPY WITH THE OVERALL STATE OF BLUES TODAY, FOR MANY REASONS. I ESPECIALLY despise today’s Blues JAMS, 1) Because they are more often than not frequented by non-Blues musicians, who think that Blues is easy to play and don’t have a love or respect for the music and 2) Nowadays, the average “Blues” bands/jammers are merely old white guys who used to play classic Rock, then stopped playing music, then 40 or 50 years later go out, playing Blues SONGS without having the right feel or knowing the right subtleties and nuances. Also, (3) a really disturbing trend shows the Blues co-opted by right-wingers. SO, you have a fanbase, a bunch of promoters and many venue owners who diametric-ly oppose the struggles of Black people; it’s a case of the “I love Black culture but don’t like Black PEOPLE”-syndrome. It’s sad. I have been regarded as an angry man in my area regarding the Blues scene, but that’s all right, because the Blues has anger in its roots. I merely speak out against injustice. Which brings us to 4)—I believe that Blacks are too-long marginalized in today’s Blues Scene. It’s much like the “Pat Boone Syndrome” of Rock N Roll of the 50’s.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

Well, the recent demises of Messrs. Berry and Cotton have given me more reason to pause and think. First and foremost, I believe that A good bluesman (or -woman, for thatmatter), it takes perseverance. It has taken me nearly 50 years to get just where I am NOW, though I strongly believe that I should be much further ahead. You definitely must still keep your ears open to what the old masters did, while trying to find/develop your own voice. Another necessity is to be observant of current events, ever mindful of social injustices, both being the source of material to write about.

"Well, the Blues to ME is TRUTH. It is the original protest music against a rotten system here in America. I relates the struggles of my people to survive slavery, racial discrimination, and its by-products from the 1600’s to the present day." (Photo by Michael Kurgansky)

How do you describe Professor Harp sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I prefer a stripped-down sound. As a matter of fact, while I’ll RECORD with extra musicians, my LIVE act is always just guitar, bass, drums and I. The way I see it, you’ve GOT to be good in order to get a full, big sound out of a skeletal band (this was rammed home to me after seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds back in 1975). I don’t like a “cluttered” sound. Trouble IS, very few know how to pull this kind of band off. The Professor Harp sound encompasses this raw blues approach, as well as roots rock n roll and some Soul. I’ve limited my circle of players, though; as I alluded to it earlier, I really don’t like playing with rock-tinged players because you don’t hear the Blues subtleties and nuances.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? What are some of the most memorable gigs & jams?

Significant gigs? Not too many: I’ve been able to WORK, but it’s been mostly underemployment and on the blues periphery... I DID open for BB King in 1985, though. THAT, of course was a high point. I am quite frustrated, though, because my qualifications are not properly noticed and so many of my contemporaries have enjoyed MUCH better success and it has been a real struggle for me for the last 40 years. I’m caught today in an era of dwindling Blues gigs, having MOSTLY phonies approaching me, grinning in my face, telling me that I’m awesome, yet never showing up at gigs, promising to help me get gigs, then “bagging out”, having to use mostly pickup or fill-in rhythm sections, because no one really plays in a real BAND anymore, but more like 4 or 5 different bands, which makes it very difficult to get a real polished act.  I want to get to the next rung on the ladder. I am so tired of being mostly snubbed in the local work scene and the festival scene up here in New England, though the situation makes you appreciate the few supporters (and they all know who they are). I REALLY despise the cliques and politics in the scene. Fools are cutting their own throats as well as people like mine by being non-inclusive. Being more inclusive could revitalize the whole Blues scene. Going back, though, to answer your question, I guess that I’d have to say that the best times I’ve had were sitting in with Muddy Waters.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

The most important meetings for me  (in no particular order)—my meeting George “Harmonica” Smith, whose sound and style is my biggest influence/original inspiration,  then 6 years later, being introduced to Muddy Waters, meeting Solomon Burke, jamming with HIM, soon receiving my title from him (“Professor Harmonica Holmes”, which I soon abbreviated to Professor Harp).  Funny you’d mention Luther Johnson, because I 1st jammed with Luther “Snake” Johnson here in the Boston area and then later with Guitar JR.- Luther Johnson with Muddy’s band back in ’75.

"Differences between drumming and harmonica playing---I would say BOTH require a good bit of stamina, as well as a good sense of time. It’s hard to say, though, about the secrets of harmonica playing, save the needs for tone, feeling, technique, and DESIRE."

Which memories from the late great bluesman Muddy Waters makes you smile?

I guess I’d have to say that most of the memories make me smile, at least the early ones.  I really enjoyed being onstage with Muddy, whenever he came to my neck of the woods and even better when I went to visit him in Westmont, Illinois. I remember how down-to-earth Muddy was—as soon as I and my buddy dropped in, he offered us salami sandwiches. Visiting him, we sat in his kitchen, shooting the shit, talking about the Blues—and here I will be describing a surreal moment—Muddy’s kitchen was in the rearmost part of the house. Between it and the front vestibule/alcove was the den, or small living room. Anyhow, where I was sitting in Muddy’s kitchen, I could see the TV well. I saw his grandkids watching the TV, but they were fighting over which program to watch. Well naturally, the noise level escalated so Muddy in his big booming voice bellowed out for quiet. When I looked up, I saw what was playing on the TV---it was THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY! What a mind-blower! “The Partridge Family” in the home of Muddy Waters! If THAT isn’t surreal, I don’t know what is! Muddy was always cool; during that kitchen bull session he told me “You gon’ be a baaad harp player!” I never forgot it…

Are there any memories from your rock 'n' roll era in Boston which you’d like to share with us?

I can’t really say much about my rock n roll drummer days because of the fact of lack of success in putting together a cohesive band, let alone working with one.  I would say that my days from 67 through 72 were the beginning to ongoing frustration. Even during my pre-roots music days I could never find the right mix of players, so the bands (if you want to call them that) never progressed beyond a couple of sessions in my parents’ garage. The frustration really began to grate on me because I looked at music as my escape, because I was forced to work in my father’s business selling fruit and vegetables, which albeit somewhat enjoyable from the age of 10 to about 14 ½, when it became increasingly boring. So being forced to work in a job I hated during the summer 7 days a week, about 14 hours a day and often after school, the problems finding musicians for a group caused me to become very angry. Mind you, this is a time BEFORE I got hip to the Blues; I would say that this stage in my life was 66 thru 69, my high school days. The frustration only increased, once my musical tastes evolved toward the Blues, because very few people, as today, had a real appreciation for the music. But I struggled on until around 73, when a few things began to develop.

What are the “differences” between a drummer …and harp player? What are the secrets of harmonica?

Differences between drumming and harmonica playing---I would say BOTH require a good bit of stamina, as well as a good sense of time. It’s hard to say, though, about the secrets of harmonica playing, save the needs for tone, feeling, technique, and DESIRE. I think having the actual desire to play the instrument is 3/4s of the battle.     (Photo by Ron Rudy)

"Jazz? Deeply rooted in the Blues. Rock n Roll? I keep some Rock n Roll in MY repertoire. Muddy Waters had it pegged in his song, BLUES HAD A BABY AND THEY CALL IT ROCK N ROLL…."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I worry for the future of the Blues, for many reasons aforementioned. But then again, I worry for the future of the WORLD. The worldwide shift to the Right in My Country, YOUR country and many others is a bad sign. I hate the slippery slope toward fascism. Countries are better off when run from the CENTER, in my honest opinion. The OTHER edge of the sword---A LOT MORE BLUES SONGS WILL BE WRITTEN. What I DO really miss is the traditional electric Blues sound.  It’s altogether too rock-tinged and flashy lead guitar oriented. BUT—there ARE some rays of hope. I have no problems with diversity, but it is young (at least compared to ME) black guys like guitarists Jontavious Willis, Marquise Knox, harpist Andrew Ali and others all serve to give me hope. I MUST keep some for myself, also.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and rock 'n' roll music?

Well, SOUL music is also known as R and B, or Rhythm and Blues. Normally I would say “enough said”, but I DO think that it is time for a return to the roots, time to put the “B” back in R and B. it correlates to the way what is touted as Country music is so far away from the roots. Jazz? Deeply rooted in the Blues. Rock n Roll? I keep some Rock n Roll in MY repertoire. Muddy Waters had it pegged in his song, BLUES HAD A BABY AND THEY CALL IT ROCK N ROLL….

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

The Blues and the socio-racial-politico ramifications....the Blues is first and foremost the ORIGINAL protest music against a corrupt racist system in North America since at least 1619. It is and will always be Black History regardless of commercialism and/or appropriation. While many of the physical milieus have changed (as I might have said earlier, I don't sing about picking cotton), there are still many problems here in the US and around the world that I CAN sing about---the institutional racism, the MODERN-DAY slavery which is the prison system, the state of perpetual war with world holocaust perpetually on the horizon, this tragic joke of a Presidency, the everyday struggle to stay alive, conflicts in romantic relationships and/or marriages. Yes, sir, there still are plenty of subjects to sing the Blues about. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

If it WERE possible to travel back in time, as an OBSERVER, as opposed to a PARTICIPANT (wouldn’t want to/couldn’t alter the course of history, y’know), I think it would be quite fascinating to see some of the Blues masters in their younger days develop their sounds and styles. The Walters, Muddy, the Kings, Elmore James, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Little Milton, John Brim, Fred Below, and countless other locals would be honing and exhibiting their crafts. FASCINATING AND PRICELESS!

Hugh Holmes - Official website

Photo by Bobbi Lane 2012       

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