Will Holt

b. Month ??, 1929 / Portland, Maine

Singer / Songwriter


Although Will Holt loves traditional folk song and has done a highly creditable job of performing it, his reputation was made through the songs of the modern German composer Kurt Weill.

After years of singing in concerts and cabarets, Will teamed up with Martha Schlamme for a program called "The World of Kurt Weill in Song" at the off-Broadway Jan Hus House, the Howff and One Sheridan Square. Reviewers were unanimous in praising the spirit and theatrical sweep that Holt brought to the songs of Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Jerry Tallmer in the New York Post wrote: "there comes this Down East Yankee (Mr. Holt) out-Berlining the Berliners with a tough, fine program . . . He has more of Brecht-Weill in him than most Threepenny Operas you'll ever see. . . . "

The Down East Yankee attended Exeter Academy and Williams College before moving to Aspen, Colorado, to study privately with Richard Dyer-Bennett. After travel in Europe and a Korean War stint in the Air Force, he began performing professionally. Will was a mainstay of the Crystal Palace in St. Louis. His sophisticated manner and musicianship brought him next to Manhattan's Village Vanguard and Blue Angel, to Chicago's Gate of Horn and San Francisco's hungry i.

The singer and guitarist also took a turn at songwriting, producing such as "Raspberries, Strawberries," "Lemon Tree" and "Till the Birds Sing in the Morning." All of them demonstrated his lyricism and his grasp of that element of contemporary songwriting, the durability of a folk-style tradition.

Somehow all that had gone before was only a prologue to the work Will did in "The World of Kurt Weill." Being essentially a theater piece, it required a stage sense, which he had, an ability to invest the characters of each song with life. His version of "Mack the Knife," for all the many interpretations it has had, is considered a classic. And Will Holt's rendition of Weill's "September Song" could stand against any. The show was written and directed by Mr. Holt, one of the staunchest admirers of Kurt Weill as a major composer of our time. In broadening out to such music in the early 196os, Will Holt was presaging a later development among folk performers who loved tradition and yet wanted to reflect their own time.

When it comes to traditional song, Will is still at home. For this collection he has chosen "She Moved Through the Fair." He says of this lovely song from Ireland:

"This song has always fascinated me for two reasons: the enigma of the lovers. Is she on earth or is she dead? Is he dreaming? Will there be a wedding? It's a marvelous drama in three stanzas, and so beautifully worded by Padraic Colum, who translated the text from the Gaelic. And secondly, the rhythm and the melody of this song. The melody is so haunting and so right for this text, and the rhythm keeps holding for a moment and then releasing, like a tension and a relaxation. All in all, I don't know any song which has given me, as a performer, more constant pleasure."

-- from "Something to Sing About" by Milt Okun (The MacMillion Co., New York (c) 1968)

NOTE: In "Something to Sing About" Milt Okun presented his opinions on a great number of the folk artists of the day coupled with a favorite folk-song selected by the artist. The song choice of Will Holt was "She Moved Through the Fair."

From the liner notes of the Will Holt album:
A WILL HOLT CONCERT" - Stinson Records SLP #64

Notes by Kenneth Goldstein

WILL HOLT was born in Portland, Maine in 1929. He began his musical studies at the age of six, first taking piano, then voice lessons. While attending school at Exeter, New Hampshire, he became interested in traditional music and guitar. In 1948, 1949, and 1950 he studied with Richard Dyer- Bennett at his "School for American Minstrelsy" at Aspen, Colorado, also studying guitar there with Rey de la Torre. In 1950 he took a motorcycle trip through Scandinavia, England, France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy collecting songs which are now part of his vast repertoire. He spent the next 30 months in the USAF. He began his professional career of concert, television and night club appearances in 1954, appearing at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis and the Village Vanguard in New York to appreciative and admiring audiences.

 Mr. Holt is not a "folk singer" nor even a "singer of folk songs." To be sure, he calls on his knowledge and appreciation of folk music to present interesting and exciting programs, but he is essentially an art singer molding the folk material, with the aid of his classical instrumental and vocal talents, into a highly dramatic art form. In this album, the first of several to be recorded by Mr. Holt for Stinson Records, the songs Miss Bailey's Ghost, Pretty Polly, and Three Jovial Huntsmen are excellent examples of the use of folk material in the art medium. In the Haying Song and Bye-Bye, Mr. Holt presents us with examples of his composing abilities, creating what he calls "half-song" of songs composed by him but based in part on other material.

This song is an excellent example of a ''half-song'' many of which can be found in Mr. Holt's repertoire. The words were first given to him while he was singing at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis. The girl who gave them to him had no ear for melody and he was never able to track down the tune. So he did the next best thing, inventing one. The song originally came from
the West Indies and in form is loosely related to the Calypso.

This song, one of the most beautiful to come from the British Isles, is in reality a Welsh folk sons (Llwyn Onn in the original Welsh) . Together with ,All Through The Night (Ar Hyd Y Nos) and Men oj Harleclt (Rhyfelgyrch Cwyr Harlech , The Ash Grove bas come to be better known in  English translation than in the original Welsh. Several translations of this song exist with the one sung by Mr. Holt by far the most beautiful.

This old favorite hag been  used by countless mothers and nurses as a popular nursery rhyme, as well as by college students for its boastful stupidity. Of course, the idea of  'courageous' hunters who came back empty handed but full of stories can probably be traced alack to the first caveman who ever missed a dinosaur. 
Iona and Peter Opie in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes suggest that the song was probably quite old by the time an earlier variant of it, , concerning three jovial Welshmen, appeared in some English street music about 1725. 
The version sung here by Will Holt comes from New England. In Folksongs of Old New England, E. H. Linscott tells us that the famous Hutchison family, of the last century who went about the country singing old songs (as well as stirring new ones Of their own creation) , found Three Jovial Huntsmen to be very popular.

Next to ('he Chisholm Trail, The Streets of Laredo is the most popular of all traditional American cowboy songs. This song and its two well known cousins, The St. James Infirmary and The Bad Girl's Lament ( better known in Canada), all spring from The Unfortunate Rake which was sung in Ireland at least as early as 1790. This song was the lament of a soldier cut down in the prime of life by syphilis and who requests a military funeral, saying:

"Muffle your drums, play your piped merrily
Play the dead march as you go along . . . ''

It was ' quite natural for the cowboy, who barrowed quite freely from the Irish, to adapt .the song to (his own subjective tale in much the same way Negro singers recreated it into a popular piece of barrel-house music. One reason for the tremendous impact of the song is that unlike most laments, which are sung in a minor mode, it is major in quality, a fact which raises it from feeling of self-pity and gives it extra strength. 

This song, with a roguish music-hall Alkalify not 'usually associated with the colds of nova Scotia, probably was brought here by English soldiers serving in the colonies. The words have been credited to an 18th Century English, dramatist and the tune was a popular one in England where it also was used for several other songs.
The story originally had its setting in England, but when its New World singers spoke of Captain Smith from Halifax it was natural for them to associate it with Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Regimental Small Clothes'' (in the last stanza) refers to the almost skin-tight knee-breeches worn in 18th century England and the colonies. Molten Samuel Woodworth wrote The Hunters of Kentucky. a famous ballad of the War 1812. the broadsides on which it was printed bore the inscription -- "To the air of 'Miss Bailey'.''

Mr. Holt first heard Kesailta in a resort hotel near Helsinki. Finland. He thought the melody so striking that he asked a friends to get the words to the
song for him. The friend did better than that, supplying Mr. Holt with a whole collection of Finnish songs, many just as beautiful as Kesailta.
The song says: "It Was a summer evening when I wandered through the woods. There l met a young girl. She
salve an old song as she walked and her voice bewitched me. I dreamt it was my true love and then she became my true love.''

'This ballad is one of the most popular
of the many murder ballads found in the southern mountains. It appears to be a condensation of a much longer British ballads The Gaspard Tragedy, dating back to at least the middle of the 18th Century. American ballad singers, in a superb example of intelligent editing of the longer ballad, have shone the story of many boring details, leaving us with an intensely dramatic recital of a crime which, in a prose counterpart, has achieved its greatest telling in Theodore Dreiser's classic, The American Tragedy.

The ballad, as Mr. Holt first heard it at a folk festival in New England was very simple. In describing what he' has done with this song. Mr. Holt writes: "The more l sang this song, the more I felt it called for a stronger, more dissonant accompaniment. l have tried to form all three things - melodic lane, words, and accompaniment ' into one single cry.''

This song ranks as a first rate composition in the tradition of the great European troubadour and court minstrels and is another of Mr. Holt's "half-songs''. one day in St. Louis Mr. Holt came acres: some German words about a farmer and his straying wife. Unable to find a melody for the song, he found that as he translated the words they suggested certain notes. soon he had a complete song. He has no idea as to how old the original German words are, or where they come from.

The Lass of Galilee is one of a group of Israeli songs collected and arranged by the great scholar and musician, A.W. Binder. The translation from the original Hebrew words is Mr. Holt's made with the help of notes supplied by Binder himself.

Liner notes from the Will Holt album:
"The World of Will Holt" - Coral Records CRL 57114


The World of Will Holt is a truly unique place where the sounds are vaguely familiar, yet fresh and original and quite unlike anything you have ever heard before. The sounds of the music are sometimes crisp and biting and sometimes mellow and plaintive, but always distinctive. And the words in the world of Will Holt, too have a flavor all their own . . . incisive often, and colorful, and always telling their own tale in a holtish manner.

At first hearing you may believe these sounds and words to be folk songs, and indeed this does account for the feeling that they are vaguely familiar. But the longer you listen, and the more your ear recalls so-called traditional folk balladeering, the sharper is the realization that here is something unique.

That something unique is substantially the person, and the nature and the character and background of Will Holt himself. A knowledgeable, hardworking, well-traveled and educated pixie is Will Holt, with an approach to music which can only be called holtish. He loves folk music of all kinds. And has traveled over substantial sections of the world seeking out the best of it. Although he knows classical music, he learned to play the guitar because he felt that of all musical instruments it could best be made part of a performer's own personality - almost an extension of his own vocal apparatus. And while he love folk music and has made a deep and scholarly study of it, he does not particularly like to, nor does he often sing folk songs as he finds them. Rather he digests and studies a folk song. He works from the basic, enduring qualitiesa, which all such age old music contains, but he builds on these. He adds to them his own individual, highly attractive and entertaining personal quality.

It is no slur on the great folk music of the world to say that much of it is poorly constructed, loosely phrased, vaguely stated. And that given a capacity to extract the best melody, phrase and, particularly, in inspiration, it is an intriguing pursuit to personalize and refine works of this nature.

Will Holt has that capacity and uses it with great artistry,. It is not a capacity he came by without hard work and study. In 1947, following his graduation from Exeter as an English major, this young man from Portland, Maine went to the Richard Dyer Bennett School of Minstrelsy in Aspen, Colorado. Here, through 1948 and 1949, he studied singing, dancing and guitar.

Following this intensive training he toured Europe on a motorcycle, searching out material, and studying the techniques of the great Continental performers. His ability to speak German and French enabled him to derive much more than the average performer from his European jaunt.

He finally made his professional debut at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, then came on to New York to play such intime' night spots as the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. He has also played the San Francisco Purple Onion. In Hollywood he worked in a legit musical produced by Huntington Hartford, called "Joy Ride." He has also done a number of Concert Tours for Columbia Artists.

Not only does Will apply all this highly personalized treatment to each of the twelve selections in this package, but unlike any other album of folk genre', he is backed here by a group of the finest jazz musicians on the West Coast.

All twelve of the selections were recorded without arrangements, strictly ad lib as Will and the boys felt each number. And these accomplished jazz men derived an inspiration from Will, which resulted in the most ingenious and inspired improvisation and faking they have ever perpetrated. Thus, we present herewith a carefully selected dozen unique interpretations of holtish material, played and sung by the most hotish man in the music world, abetted by a purely offbeat jazz combination.

This is the world of Will Holt. Lend an ear. You'll love it. You'll play it over again, and with each playing find something else fresh and exciting and intriguing.


Songs Credited to Will Holt Song Title
1. Lemon Tree
2. Raspberries, Strawberries


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Last revised: February 23, 2006.