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Banjo picker who advised presidents and jammed with folk icons enjoying a mellower gig in Lantana

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

ON A RECENT Monday evening, banjo picker John Holum led a few neighbors on singalongs of some old favorites: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Jack Yellen’s “Ain’t She Sweet.”

They threw in other Great American Songbook classics like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon’’ before calling it a night at 8 p.m. sharp, right after a spirited finale of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.’’

As banjo jam sessions go, this was no hoedown. The weekly singalongs at The Carlisle senior living facility in Lantana only last an hour and rarely draw a crowd; it’s tough to compete with the blackjack and bridge games packing the adjacent activity rooms.

But for Holum, who will celebrate his 83rd birthday on Dec. 4, they’re just the latest in a long line of satisfying gigs he has played over the past 50-plus years with musicians of varying backgrounds and talents — from folk icon Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame to harmonica-blowing U.S. Congressman Dave Obey and mountain fiddling Sen. Robert Byrd.

Before moving with his wife, Barbara, to The Carlisle a few years ago, he picked his banjo just about anywhere — Midwest music festivals and a presidential campaign plane; dive bars in the Florida Keys and music halls like The Birchmere in Virginia; Senate offices on Capitol Hill and the East Room of the White House in front of his boss, President Bill Clinton, at a reception for just-married political power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin.

Folk icon Pete Seeger leads a 1980s jam with The Capitol Offenses. Behind him is banjo player John Holum, beneath the Capitol rotunda. (COURTESY OF JOHN HOLUM)

Music, especially bluegrass, has been a lifelong passion, but it never paid the bills. Playing guitar and banjo was always just an outlet, “a release,” he says, from the rigors of the stressful day jobs he tackled during a distinguished career in Washington, D.C.

Following the footsteps of his father, Kenneth Holum, the assistant secretary of Interior, Water and Power under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, John Holum arrived in Washington in 1965 to attend night law school at George Washington University and work for a fellow South Dakota Democrat he greatly admired, Sen. George McGovern.

He served as McGovern’s legislative director until 1979 when he went to work for Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, as a policy planner. When Ronald Reagan took office, Holum went into private practice and spent 12 years with the heavy-hitting firm O’Melveny & Myers, focusing on regulatory and international matters.

When Clinton ran for president in 1992, two of the Arkansas governor’s biggest campaigners were Holum and his wife, Barbara, whom worked with Clinton 20 years earlier on McGovern’s ‘72 presidential campaign.

Holum served all eight years of the Clinton administration, first as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and then as under secretary of State for arms control and international security.

John Holum serenades Boston Globe correspondent Tom Oliphant and others aboard George McGovern's 1972 campaign plane. (COURTESY OF JOHN HOLUM)

When he wasn’t negotiating arms-control treaties or leading U.S. efforts to contain nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, he immersed himself in Washington’s thriving bluegrass scene.

“The nice thing about a musical instrument is you can sit down when you get home at night and play for a while. I did that a lot,’’ he said.

Once in a while he played during the day, in some unorthodox settings.

An informal gig in 1973 paired Holum and South Dakota Sen. Jim Abourezk on guitar with an accomplished fiddler from West Virginia. As Holum recalled, Abourezk “called me up one day and said, ‘You want to go jam with Bobby Byrd?’ I said, ‘Sure.’’’

The jam session took place in what Holum described as Byrd’s personal “hideaway” in the bowels of the Capitol. Holum laughed at the memory and said, “At the end of it Jim Abourezk said to Byrd, ‘That was pretty good. We should organize a group and play in public.’ And Byrd said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that. It’d be great. But it should be senators only.’’

John Holum hold photo of him taking the oath of office from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1993.

Years later, after taking up the banjo, Holum played with The Capitol Offenses, a band first formed with his longtime musical collaborator and fellow McGovernite Scott Lilly. The band later featured Obey on harmonica and Barbara Holum, at the time a commissioner with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, on fiddle. (Barbara once took lessons from Byrd’s fiddle teacher.)

“The Foot-Stomping Under Secretary’’ is how a 1999 State Department website story described Holum and his musical side gigs, which included sessions with “The Informed Sources,’’ a bluegrass band made up mainly of the Capitol press corp.

(Holum wasn’t the only banjo player in that band. The other was Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Trewhitt, who served on the 1984 presidential debate panel and asked the famous “age” question that Ronald Reagan memorably knocked out of the park, all but reassuring his re-election victory over Walter Mondale.)

(L-R) Hal Bruno and John Holum of The Informed Sources jam with folk guitarist Libba Cotten (far right). COURTESY JOHN HOLUM

While the Beltway bluegrass scene offered a much-appreciated creative outlet for aspiring musicians like Holum, it also afforded opportunities to meet and play with musical luminaries who came through town. Among them: Seeger, Yarrow, folk guitar legend Elizabeth Cotten, folk singer Tom Paxton and Bill Danoff, who wrote the 1976 smash “Afternoon Delight’’ for his one-hit wonder group Starland Vocal Band.

Holum doesn’t openly advertise his background to his Lantana neighbors. But he might volunteer a snippet during the weekly singalongs, like he did one October evening as he was about to lead silver-haired singers Burt Scholl, Jewell Curley and Del Springer in “Country Roads, Take Me Home,’’ a song with a loose personal connection to Holum.

As he explained to the singers, the song was a hit in 1971 for John Denver, but it was co-written by Danoff, who Holum met years later on the Beltway folk scene. The Capitol Offenses recorded their first album in the basement of Danoff’s house on Washington’s MacArthur Boulevard.

“It was called Watch Your Head Studio because it was in his basement,’’ he said with a chuckle. “And you had to watch your head (when entering).’’

Then he closed his eyes, picked the opening notes and sang the first two words himself — “Almost heaven …” The other singers quickly joined in — “West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River …”

Starland Vocal Band co-founder Bill Danoff (center) jams at a house party hosted (right) by Barbara and John Holum.

On this October evening, Holum led the singers in front of an audience of one (this reporter). “We get as many as 10 or 12 on some nights. It’s kind of inconsistent,” Scholl said.

“It’s tough when there’s bridge in the next room,” Curley added.

“We don't have big crowds,’’ Scholl said, “but we have fun.”

The singers do engage larger audiences: At least once a month, they’ll play for sing-alongs with residents in The Carlisle’s memory care and assisted living sections — gigs Holum and the singers find more rewarding than their weekly Monday night singalongs.

Last year, they were joined on a few gigs by a guest on mandolin — Holum’s brother, Robert, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Robert Holum is supposed to visit again over Christmas, John said, “and he really wants to play at memory care.”

“Music is the key to the mind, really, and to the heart,” said Curley, who said she spent 10 years as a bedside singer at a St. Petersburg hospice. “A favorite song is ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Even though they've lost everything and are fading away, they open their eyes and start singing.’

Banjo picker John Holum, at right with his wife Barbara, leads Carlisle singers, left to right, Burt Scholl, Jewel Curley and Del Springer on a Monday night singalong at The Carlisle senior living facility in Lantana. (JOE CAPOZZI)

Holum fell in with The Carlisle singers not long after he and Barbara, his wife of 37 years, moved to Lantana in July 2021. (The Holums discovered the area years ago on stopovers anchored in Lake Worth or tied up at the Palm Beach Yacht Club, where they’d wait out nasty weather offshore on annual migrations from Annapolis and points south to the Florida Keys on their 58-foot trawler. The boat, “Solveig IV,’’ shares Holum’s mother’s first name, Solveig, Norwegian for “Way of the Sun.”)

The singers were having trouble finding a piano accompanist. When they got word of Holum’s musical prowess, they said a banjo would do just fine.

For Holum, adjusting to the new gig was a challenge, he said, and not just because he lacks the dexterity these days to rip off the searing banjo solos he was known for decades ago.

He had to learn what the singers knew best: American Songbook classics.

“It’s an instructional experience because as you know, country and bluegrass songs are usually three chords, four at most,’’ he said, before nodding toward the singers. “They like to do swing songs, old standards that have very strange progressions and unusual chords, diminished, augmented and the like, and they are very hard. I’ve always liked that kind of music, but it’s a lot of work.’’

It didn’t take long for Holum and his trusty Deering banjo to find the Carlisle groove, which wasn’t a surprise: He’s always been a fast learner.

He credits his mother, a pianist and a flutist while in college with the South Dakota Symphony, with planting his musical seeds. His first string instrument was the baritone ukulele while a student at Northern State University in South Dakota, where he earned a degree in mathematics and physics.

When he arrived in Washington for law school, he took up the guitar and began playing more seriously. After the ‘72 campaign, he began jamming with his friend Scott Lilly and quickly realized Lilly was the more accomplished guitar player.

Holum decided it might be time to try a new instrument.

“I always liked bluegrass. So, I got a banjo and Earl Scruggs’ book and learned how to play,’’ he said. “Fortunately I was living alone at the time.’’

John Holum aboard the McGovern campaign plane in 1972.

The week of Thanksgiving 1974, he chartered a boat to go sailing in the Caribbean, on a well-earned vacation after helping McGovern get reelected to the Senate. With plans to relax for one week, he found an upstart boat charter spot in the British Virgin Islands called The Moorings. He loved the place, stuck around for another week and spent hours playing guitar and singing, first on his balcony and then in the marina’s bar.

“One day the owner of The Moorings said to me, ‘You seem to handle boats OK. Do you wanna stay on as a captain and in between you play in the bar?’” Holum closed his eyes and smiled at the memory.

“And I was so close to doing that,’’ he said.

The loyal McGovernite went back to Washington, a decision he said he doesn’t regret. After all, he wound up running an agency and working in the highest State Department echelons, reporting directly to President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and leading U.S. efforts on arms control.

John Holum holds a photo of himself with Sen. George McGovern in 1972.

Around the same time, he took up sailing on the Chesapeake Bay and soon was so devoted to both hobbies that he briefly flirted with the idea of quitting his government job and focusing on music and the sea.

Still, he said the other day before picking at his banjo, “I’ve often thought about paths not chosen.’’

As Holum began retreating toward retirement, he earned a 100-ton Coast Guard master’s license so he and Barbara could cruise the waters full time. From the boat, connected electronically, he advised the Obama campaign on arms control policy. He also found himself absorbed by a new way of living, and before long he left the beltway in his wake.

In 2005, after settling in the Florida Keys for the season, he met a musician named Joe Mama and joined him off and on for the next 15 years playing bars, house parties and events in Marathon, in exchange “for beer and french fries.’’

By mid-2020, after the pandemic started shutting down bars and restaurants, the two musicians went their separate ways. Holum and Barbara wound up in Lantana a year later.

Holum also stays connected to music through his proud work as a former chairman and long-time board member with the National Council for the Traditional Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to the presentation and documentation of folk and traditional arts.

The NCTA hosts multicultural music festivals, most recently The Richmond Music Festival, which drew 200,000 the weekend of Oct. 13.

“I think music is irresistible,’’ he said. “Part of the reason I'm so excited about the (NCTA) festivals, they are unique in that we get really superb artists from a whole range of musical genres — bluegrass and country, zydeco and cajun, blues and Tejano and everything you can think of. It brings people together to learn to appreciate each other's cultural expressions. There's no better way to break down barriers than that.’’

John and Barbara Holum with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton in a framed photograph on the wall of the Holums' Lantana home.

It was in the NCTA spirit that he agreed to join the Carlisle singers.

Although the weekly gigs lack the energy of the jams he once played with The Capitol Offenses, he said he’s just happy for the chance to play banjo every week and spend time with his neighbors.

They sit at card tables and open spiral binders full of dozens of songs with lyrics printed out in large type for easy reading. The absence of a sizable audience suits them just fine in the post-pandemic world.

They’re well aware they won’t be auditioning for “The Voice” any time soon, and they often punctuate their performances with self-deprecating humor.

“This next one is our theme song,’’ Curley said one night before they sang Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.’’

Once in a while, Holum has to gently remind the singers, raising his voice mid-song, to keep pace with his banjo and not sing ahead.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, they tore through 22 songs in an hour, including Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” (even though singer Judy Schee whispered mid-song to a visitor, “I don’t care too much for Rod Stewart.’’)

They ended again at 8 p.m. sharp, after a finale with a fitting name, “Goodnight, Irene.’’

As the singers got up to leave, Holum lingered with his wife and casually picked his banjo. He wasn’t quite done.

He closed his eyes and tore into a spirited solo of an old Creedence Clearwater Revival favorite.

Rocking his head side to side, he sang along to his banjo, “And I never lost one minute of sleepin’, worryin’ ‘bout the way things might have been. Big wheels keep on turning, Proud Mary keep on burning …’’

For a moment or two, he was back in the Capital Beltway jamming again.

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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