Sunday, July 26, 2009

Justin Holland, African American Guitarist, Arranger & Composer Born July 26, 1819

[Justin Holland (Photo Courtesy Douglas Back); American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar;
Douglas Back, guitar; Mento Music Press SMM 3023 (1994)]

"Justin Holland was born to free black parents in Norfolk County, Virginia on July 26, 1819," Barbara Clemenson writes in her article Justin Holland: Black Guitarist in the Western Reserve. Guitarist Douglas Back has made a recording which includes five works of the composer, American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar, Mento Music Press SMM 3023 (1994). His website is The CD can be ordered, or downloaded in MP3 format, at

The CD liner notes by Douglas Back tell us of two separate periods during which Justin Holland was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, first for a year in 1841, when he was 22, and later for a shorter time in 1845. Douglas Back writes: “After returning to Oberlin in 1845, Holland married and soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he established himself as a teacher of guitar, mandolin, piano and flute, becoming the city's first black professional.” “Between the years 1848 and 1854 Holland participated as an assistant secretary and member of council at National and State Negro Conventions, where he worked alongside such noted activists as Frederick Douglass. He is known to have worked with the Underground Railroad...”

The liner notes continue: “ Although Holland seldom performed in public, he developed a national reputation as a composer and arranger for the guitar. To the average amateur guitarist of the day, his numerous arrangements made his a household name. Of his approximately 350 published works for the guitar, which include two acclaimed methods, only about one-third are extant.” “Justin Holland died at his son's home in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 24, 1887. His son, Justin Minor Holland and daughter, Claire Monteith Holland were also accomplished guitarists...” Donald Sauter informs us of Scraps From The Operas, an MP3 recording of 20 short pieces written by Justin Holland and performed by the JH Guitar Duo. The recording may be purchased at

Prof. Clemenson tells us: “Maybe some day I will re-engage in the historical research on this fascinating man. I know I only scratched the surface, while learning just enough to pique greater interest, realizing that Holland would be a fascinating person to showcase in order to help all of us better understand many important threads in black history in the 19th century. Barbara Clemenson” [Justin Holland is profiled at]

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