In this article we continue our Composer Showcase series with Justin Holland. During the time of the great European 19th-century guitar pedagogues like Sor, Carulli, and Aguado, the guitar was just becoming popular in the United States. One of the most important American guitarists during this time was Justin Holland.

Justin Holland: A Brief Biography

Justin Holland was born in 1819 to free black parents in Virginia, where he first showed musical passion and skill. However, his parents died when he was only 14 years old. So in 1833 he moved to Boston, a musical center at the time. There he heard Mariano Perez perform a concert on the guitar. He was instantly drawn in to the possibilities of the instrument. While in Boston, Holland studied guitar, learned to play the flute, and began teaching.

A few years later, Holland attended college at Oberlin beginning in 1841. After his time at Oberlin, Holland became a teacher in high demand in Cleveland. In addition, he began to publish his first arrangements in 1848. Holland’s arrangements of songs and popular opera themes would total more than 300.

Along with Holland’s many musical contributions, he worked as an activist among black leaders. In 1848, he worked alongside Frederick Douglass in the Colored National Convention. As an activist, he was able to help many slaves escape slavery through the Underground Railroad.

In 1876, Holland learned of a brain illness that eventually led to his death in 1887.

To learn much more about Justin Holland, please watch this insightful interview with guitarist and friend of CGC, Chris Mallet.

Justin Holland’s Methods for Guitar

Holland composed two method books, in 1874 and 1876 respectively. These were influential on many American guitarists for generations to come. While many of Holland’s compositions have been lost, these methods are invaluable resources for American guitar pedagogy. We do have many of his arrangements, however: go here to see the collection Cal State University Northridge has gathered of Holland’s many arrangements and popular folk songs.

Performances of Holland’s Music

Christopher Mallet performing Holland’s take on The Carnival of Venice

Elle Davisson performing Holland’s original composition “Andante”

Ernie Jackson performing Holland’s arrangement of “Rochester Scottische”

We hope you enjoyed that brief showcase of the life and works of Justin Holland! We’ve created a Composer Guide you can download below. This contains all the essential details about the life and works of Justin Holland.