Will Holt enjoyed a successful music career -- or, perhaps more accurately, several musical careers -- in different idioms across five decades. He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1929, and by 1935, at age six, he'd taken up the piano. Soon after that he began singing and taking voice lessons. He attended school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and during that time became interested in both the guitar and traditional music. During the late '40s, he studied with Richard Dyer-Bennett at the School for American Minstrels in Aspen, Colorado; his guitar teacher during this same period, also based at the school, was Rey de la Torre.
Holt spent a major part of 1950 traveling around Europe and began collecting folk songs. Following an interruption caused by the draft and two and a half years in the Air Force, he embarked on a music career in 1954 and was soon appearing on television and in nightclubs doing folk songs. By the middle of the decade, he'd played the Crystal Palace in St. Louis and the Village Vanguard in New York City, and he also recorded a pair of LPs for Stinson Records, A Will Holt Concert and Pills to Purge Melancholy. His repertoire embraced traditional songs in many different forms, from European and British folk tunes such as "Three Jovial Huntsmen" and the Finnish "Kesailta" (which he discovered while passing through Helsinki) to cowboy songs such as "The Streets of Laredo."
In his performances and on his recordings, rather than use the standard instrumentation of folk artists of the period, he recruited a band made of top jazz musicians, with improvisation a definite goal in his performances -- what's more, he knew enough about whence they came to write and speak authoritatively on almost anything in his repertoire. Holt was known primarily as a folk artist during the second half of the 1950s, and wrote at least two classics of the genre, "Lemon Tree," which was vastly popular before Peter, Paul & Mary turned it into a hit, and "Raspberries, Strawberries," which was a hit for the Kingston Trio.
During the 1960s, Holt's career took a wholly unexpected turn when, in an off-Broadway collaboration with singer Martha Schlamme, he performed a program called The World of Kurt Weill in Song. The program became a huge critical and commercial success, and Holt suddenly had a new and very different audience that associated him with Weill's Berlin-inspired compositions. This new phase of his work only solidified his reputation as one of the more imposingly talented musicians to come out of the post-World War II folk music scene. Holt died of Alzheimer's disease in Los Angeles on May 31, 2015; he was 86 years old.