With unrivaled determination, a boisterous and full-bodied style, and a music career spanning four decades, Hugh Holmes has earned the nickname “the Undaunted Professor Harp.” One of New England’s premier harmonica players, Professor Harp has a simple approach: just keep playing.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1951, Holmes has lived in the Boston metro area since birth. At age ten, his father saw economic opportunity in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, located about 30 minutes south of Boston. As an adolescent in Bridgewater, Holmes gained a cultural awareness that eventually led him to pursue the blues.
“My folks didn’t expose me to the blues,” he said. “They came from what I call the North-South-Virginia and North Carolina. And the areas from where we came didn’t have a lot of the blues like you hear in Mississippi or Texas or Georgia or someplace like that.” Instead, the percussionist stylings of Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole perked Holmes’ young ears, and he began playing drums as a teenager. “But more and more my ear was moving toward listening to the blues,” he says.
Holmes came of age during the Vietnam War, and he struggled to find a place as a black male who resisted the United States military campaign in Southeast Asia. Holmes looked inward, turning to blues music as an entry point to black identity. “At the time a lot of the people were right wing and they were for the war, and I turned against it. So let’s just say I wasn’t really a comfortable fit.
I figured, what better way to get black awareness than to listen to the blues?”
As a young man, Holmes frequented Boston-area music venues, and it was here that he lost his “blues virginity.” In 1969 he caught a show at the Boston Tea Party with harp players George Smith, Rod Piazza, and Big Mama Thornton, and that became a turning point in his life. “That was the thing that got me into playing the harmonica. Rod Piazza was playing a harmonica boogie, and the biggest thing was seeing George Smith, who is my biggest influence even now.
“The thing about it that really blows my mind even now is I was leaning on a car with George Smith, and I didn’t know who he was. [laughs] We were waiting for the line to get down a bit, and this older black gentleman came in and said, ‘How you doin’, little brother?” But I didn’t know who he was. Then he went on the stage and picked up the harp and started playing. Oh man!
“I never heard electric harmonica before then, and it just gave me chills down my spine. I saw George and said, man, I gotta pick this up.
“Another turning point came when a friend of mine introduced me to Muddy Waters when I was about 24. This was a time when Muddy would do matinees over at a place called Paul’s Mall in midtown Boston. He knew Muddy and so one April afternoon I went over there.
“My friend introduced me to Muddy and said, ‘Hey this is Hugh, and he’s gonna play some harp for you.’ And Muddy didn’t say nothing. And the next thing I know I’m hearing Muddy say, ‘Hey you, come on up.’ And all of a sudden I’m playing with Muddy Waters.
“It got to the point where every time he [Muddy] would come to town he would invite me to play with him. And I picked up more chops and more confidence, because you’re basically sitting at the feet of the master.”
Holmes’ acquaintance with Muddy led to musical collaborations with other well-known musicians, and it was during one such performance that Holmes received the moniker from which Professor Harp emerged.
“Back in those days I used to wear these gold rimmed glasses. So [Solomon] Burke started calling me Professor Harmonica Holmes. and when an R&B icon gives you a nickname you gotta take it. So I just shortened it to Professor Harp and that’s the way it’s been.”
Playing next to artists such as Muddy Waters and Solomon Burke helped Holmes gain the drive and poise to assemble his own bands, and in the late 1970s he began seeking blues musicians in the Boston area for various projects. Holmes met difficulties in both finding local musicians and building a fan base.
“You don’t get that much black support,” says Holmes. “And that’s a shame because for the most part, blacks threw the blues away. For reasons that aren’t really true. Because the same social factors still exist today, the only difference is it’s a little bit more sophisticated.
“There are enough social factors to keep the blues alive and the black community should realize that. Just the everyday struggle to stay alive. Problems with the old man or old lady. Money problems. You name it. The blues are still here. We’re always fooling ourselves when we say e’ve outgrown the blues or we’ve evolved from it.”
Despite the challenges presented to Holmes, he continues to push forward. “I keep going. That’s why they call me “the Undaunted Professor Harp,” he says. “Because I don’t stop. Once it gets n your blood, it’s hard to stop.”
To keep his feet wet, Holmes performs frequently in New England, and he is currently building a network in the Southeast. In late May, he joined fellow harpists Hurricane Hawk and Steve Scott in a Harmonica Blowout at the Myakka River Blues Festival in Venice, Florida.
Professor Harp’s album, They Call Me Professor, showcases an impressive cast of New England musicians, including Tom Ferraro, Bob Margolin, Keith Munslow, and the late John Packer. The album received positive reviews and increased Professor Harp’s exposure to the blues audience, but he is always looking for new ways to connect with listeners.
Above all, Holmes’ goal is to continue bringing the blues to the people. I’m just doing the best I can to keep the blues I alive.”