Nora Holt: Free-Spirited Composer of the Harlem Renaissance


Nora Holt | Photo by Carl Van Vechten

About Open Ears: So many people who made invaluable contributions to classical music were underappreciated in their time, or have been nearly lost to history. That’s why KUSC is starting Open Ears, a series of stories about composers, musicians, and conductors who deserve more recognition. You can learn more and explore other articles here.

Nora Douglas Holt was a composer, singer, critic, socialite, and a deep part of the culture of the Harlem Renaissance, but sadly, very little remains of her compositions. She was born Lena Douglas, and her life – with five marriages, and enough wealth after the death of her fourth husband to allow for travel and independence – was one of charting her own path, and making her mark.

Her study of music began as a youngster, when she took piano lessons from the age of four, and played the organ in her father’s church in Kansas City. Her skills grew as she did, studying music at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas. She attended the Chicago Musical College, where in 1918, she earned a master’s degree, said to be the first African-American (let alone African-American woman) to earn a master’s in music composition in the United States.

Her thesis in Chicago, a piece for orchestra called Rhapsody on Negro Themes, was among the 200 or so works for orchestra and chamber songs that were lost when they were stolen with her other belongings from storage while she was abroad singing in Europe and Asia. Only two pieces remain, including this one, called “Negro Dance”, a work for solo piano that was fortunately published before the theft.


Samantha Ege playing “Negro Dance” (1921) by Nora Holt

When she returned from overseas, she turned her attention to music criticism, never returning to composition, or even trying to recreate the lost works. She was a music critic for the Chicago Defender, a Black daily newspaper from 1917-21, and in 1919 co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians. During the ‘20s, she founded the magazine Music and Poetry, and became friends with members of the Harlem Renaissance, hosting and attending soirees with the leading writers and thinkers of the era. She was free-spirited, with a string of sensational divorces, known for singing her signature song “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)” and sometimes dancing in the nude at those parties. She studied with Nadia Boulanger in France, and then took classes at USC in the 1930s, and taught in the public schools of Los Angeles. In the ‘40s, she became an editor and music critic for the influential Black newspaper Amsterdam News. In 1945, Holt was the first African-American elected to the Music Critics Circle of New York, nominated by fellow critic/composer Virgil Thomson. She would go on to host her own classical music radio program in New York, and in 1966 participated in the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal. After a life filled with bringing the experience and enjoyment of music to others, Nora Holt died in January of 1974, at the age of 89.