The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has selected two DMV area music groups for the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. The Holmes Brothers, whose members reside in Maryland and Virginia, and the Singing & Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware are both among this year’s fellows.
Each year, the NEA awards fellowships to musicians who have played an important role in preserving and furthering folk and other traditional forms of American music. This year’s recipients were honored at an awards ceremony on Sept. 17, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., according to an NEA spokesperson. A concert made up of this year’s honorees was also held on Sept. 19, at the Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. The concert will be live streamed on the NEA website (www.arts.gov).
The Holmes Brothers have been playing together since 1970, incorporating a number of African-American musical traditions, including blues, country, a healthy dollop of gospel, and rhythm and blues, according to Wendell Holmes, one of the band’s three members and a resident of Rosedale, MD.
Holmes told the AFRO in an exclusive interview that one of the group’s early influences was Jimmy Reed, and cited Reed’s unique approach to the blues.
“I find that in music the main ingredient is to be unique,” said Holmes. “It’s not how fast you play a lick, or how much schooling you’ve had, you just have to be you. If you only play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and play it your way, you’re better off.”
Of being recognized as an NEA fellow along with his brother Sherman Holmes and band mate Popsy Dixon, Wendell Holmes said, “It feels good. It’s a great honor, a great blessing, but it’s like any other thing, we take it in stride and see it as a blessing.”
The Singing & Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware are a 50 member strong ensemble that practices a style of African-American Christian worship that predates the Civil War. Singing and praying as a group while lined up on either side of a long bench known as the mourner’s bench, the ensemble begins to walk around the bench as the worship progresses. Today, this unique style of worship, with West African influences, is only practiced in tidewater Maryland and Delaware.
“Among these recipients of NEA National Heritage Fellowships there is a recurring theme.” said NEA
chairman Jane Chu. “These artists’ passion for their art can be seen both in their long and dedicated careers and their willingness to share their knowledge with new audiences.”