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Jerry Holland’s Cape Breton Home

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Jerry Holland at Celtic Colours Cape Breton

by Shona McMillan. In 1969, in Boston Massachusetts, a young musician made a decision about the future of his life. Fiddle player Jerry Holland explains “At the grand old age of fourteen, I just knew, someday I was going to live in Cape Breton. At twenty one, I saw my dream come true as I celebrated my birthday there. In this place I had got, I waited for my furniture to be delivered. For 33 years since, Cape Breton has been and always will be my home”.

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At this year’s Celtic Connections in Glasgow (2009), Jerry was one of the headlining acts to open the festival but it was not on this tour that I first met this extraordinary musician. It was some twenty years earlier, so long ago, neither of us are quite sure exactly when. Yet, I do recall it was a life changing introduction for me to Cape Breton’s music and its people. Back in the seventies there had been no opportunities within my school system for me to play traditional music but I always wanted to play the violin. Then as a teenager, I met the Edinburgh Shetland Fiddlers, got a fiddle via a newspaper advert and began to join in with them, playing by ear. This was fine until my fiddle suffered a major accident and then, not until ten years later was it fixed and I started to play again in 1987. Tentatively, I’d join in the music sessions in Edinburgh pubs but these could be intimidating places for a beginner, I recall being told (in my twenties) that I was “too old” but I persevered. Sitting back from the inner circle’s best players it could be hard to hear and too nerve wracking to venture a tune. It was around this time, in 1989, I met Jerry and his Cape Breton friends. Their playing ability blew me away but their encouragement to those learning – it amazed me. I was struck by the tremendous generosity of their musical attitude towards others.

Wanting to learn more about Cape Breton music, I left Jerry’s first gig in Edinburgh with his tape “Lively Steps”. Returning home, I had to play it through several times before I could switch it off and get to sleep. This new style of music was completely captivating. Regret grew that I had not purchased Jerry’s book, so a few days later I caught a bus to Glasgow and went to their last gig in Scotland. I could not sight read but I still bought ‘Jerry Holland’s collection of tunes’. Interesting and amusingly named compositions, an incredible ‘selection box’ of music (and so much written by this one person!) I was greatly inspired to learn to read music. Silently yet loudly, these enticing tunes were beckoning to me from their pages, trapped until I could read their music and set them free. And then, more encouragement from Cape Breton in the arrival of a totally unexpected package. To ‘Shona the fiddle player at the Green Tree pub ’ - a present of Cape Breton cassette tapes with a tourist map. All marked up by hand, the map was covered with arrows to musicians’ houses. I was to come and visit! On the group’s next tour to Scotland, this time when they left, so too did I, persuaded to accompany them on a tour around Ireland.

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‘… As a man who has travelled around the world, playing his music straight from his heart, home has been where his heart is.’
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Years later, at Celtic Connections 2009, I was reminiscing with Jerry about these times but earlier that evening I had been photographing him and thinking, in some ways, it seemed like yesterday. A big stage and auditorium can put such distance between performer and audience but a telephoto lense sees it all. Photographing Jerry on stage that evening, I saw his eyes sparkle, a big smile hovering around his lips and the body language expressed of a person as much in love with music as the one I met, so many years back. Jerry’s passion for traditional music, so warmly conveyed at all of his Scottish gigs, that it made them the most emotionally charged, most memorable events I’ve ever seen. Such communication with his audience that his slow tunes, reached in, touched the heart and brought tears to the listener’s eyes. Yet moments later, a change of key or pace brought jigs or reels, so beguiling, that the tapping foot became a challenge, daring the listener to get up and dance. As a man who has travelled around the world, playing his music straight from his heart, home has been where his heart is. At fourteen, Jerry was an astute young man to realise for him, then as now, Cape Breton was/is his home.

Jerry Holland at Celtic Colours, Photo by Pete Heywood

Jerry’s love for Cape Breton music was first kindled by his father, a fine fiddle player from Tweeside, New Brunswick. Jerry Holland Senior was born in 1904 in a small place called Acton, just outside Fredericton. His father’s mother was French (although none of the family spoke it) and on his father’s side, the nationality was Irish. Jerry’s father served in the army and then the navy and through this became naturalised and moved to Boston. He worked as a carpenter and then, for around eleven years, as one of the head maintenance men at the Veteran’s Hospital. Also there was Jerry’s mother, Jeanette, from a town called Saint Pampile in Quebec, on the border from Maine. Jerry’s mother worked in the hospital’s personnel department and he tells the story that his dad would call her up to hear her say the name of the office “Hello, this is personal” and he would laugh. Jerry’s parents were married nearly ten years when he was born in 1955. By then, his father was fifty-one so the musicians he socialised with were mature players who had developed their craft. In this household, young Jerry’s interest in music was much encouraged. Amongst Jerry’s earliest recollections are memories of waiting for his dad to get home so he would play music. Indeed, his mother had a photograph of Jerry with a diaper on, dragging the fiddle and bow to the door to greet his father. “I’d get him to play even before he had got his boots off and I can see him still in his big overshoes, playing the fiddle. And, when he played Pop! Goes the Weasel, I’d make the ‘pop’ with my mouth.”

The house was regularly visited by some of the most respected of musicians so Jerry and his sister, Ann, grew up around music. In 1958, although just three at the time, Jerry can recall the first time he heard his ‘hero’ Winston ‘Scotty’ Fitzgerald play during a visit. Fascinated by this man’s playing (and the incredible mustache he had) Jerry was mesmerised. On his little wooden chair, he positioned himself closer and then closer to this most amazing man, staring intently so nothing escaped Jerry’s gaze on him. Finally, Winston set down his fiddle and picked up the toddler, gave him a hearty hug and then set him back on his chair. Some time later, Jerry fell asleep amidst the music but remembers the upset he felt when he awoke in the quiet house, the party over, the musicians all gone. Of course, more parties took place and growing up Jerry remembers many things from these times, some memories about the music, some about the different styles and some - amusing snippets mixed in, such as, the thickness of the glasses worn by fiddler Tom Marsh, a good player who visited from Cape Breton. In such a setting, it is not surprising that, when Jerry showed an interest in the music around him, Jerry Senior was keen to develop that interest and so, at the age of five, Jerry Senior took on teaching his son the fiddle.

Jerry recalls it was fun at first but then remembers it as being quite torturous for a while. On a full-sized violin, his small hands struggled to play. His little fingers found it difficult to stretch and get the notes correct plus, he had difficulty holding the bow. Jerry remembers an elastic band, gently used to try and keep him from dropping the bow, he recalls he hated that but quickly, things progressed. Within a year, Jerry’s playing was being noted for his tone and intonation – both considered to be remarkable for a six year old. Something of a child prodigy, Jerry began to get exposure playing on local television shows. However, it was not just his fiddle playing which attracted attention. At some point, Jerry had walked up stairs whilst playing the fiddle. Seeing his ability to keep rhythm and move his father had called him back “Wait a minute, if you can make it up steps doing that, you can also dance and play the fiddle. Why not put the two of them together?” So, that’s how it started. Historians have since found that Jerry was not the first to play the fiddle and dance but at this time it was a tradition which had been lost in the mists of time. Jerry’s step dancing abilities progressed like his playing and at seven, he was invited to step dance on a well known programme ‘Don Messer’s Jubilee Show.’ After this, national TV appearances followed on another popular TV programme, ‘Ted Mack Amateur Hour.’

Not limiting himself to fiddle playing and step dancing, Jerry was also interested in the way the tunes were accompanied and from Aubey Foley he learned to play the guitar. Aubey played back up for Jerry Senior but also, Aubey’s father Lambert Foley was a significant player in Jerry Senior’s own musical development. Lambert was a relative to Jerry Senior through his marriage and his musical children also contributed to this melting pot of creativity with strong contributions too from Fred and Dan the Landry brothers and Angus Gillis, his wife a close relative to Angus Chisholm. Most Friday nights and Saturday afternoons there would be a musical get together and, on the kitchen table, large reel-to-reel tape recorders would be placed to capture the tunes. Amidst this musical mix, at just ten years old, an opportunity arose for Jerry to accompany the fiddler Angus Chisholm.

For two and a half years, into his early teens, Jerry played back up for Angus on a weekly basis in a pub type establishment called Tom Slavin’s. From eight, to eleven or even twelve o’clock, it was a long night for the young Jerry. Yet, these gigs and dances (run by Bill Lamey at the Rose Croix Hall where all the Cape Bretoners went) they were all part of Jerry’s musical progression. All the time, his musical repertoire was growing but the pace of that development was not always constant. Amidst such a vibrant music scene, it was still only the dedication and practise by Jerry which raised the standard of his playing. When an opportunity arose for him to be a fiddler on a TV pilot show for John Allan Cameron - it was somewhat of a mixed blessing. Jerry struggled to sight read music and this show would be a consistent challenge for Jerry to learn new material. In addition, the quality of that first line-up was tremendous - Joe Cormier, Angus Chisholm, Winston Fitzgerald and later Wilfred Gillis and John Donald Cameron (replacing Joe and Angus).

At times, people may hear a great player and think it all comes naturally but, there was nothing ‘natural’ in any person suddenly being able to play a whole selection of new tunes. Looking back on that time, before the ease of today when tunes can be emailed, Jerry comments ”Once a package of sixty to eighty tunes arrived the day I was leaving to record in Halifax, I should have gotten the package two weeks before. I needed to play these tunes as if I had been playing them all my life and I could imagine the frustration on the part of the other players in trying to get me up to speed on this stuff. Although they were all very kind and helpful, they were still some of the greatest players Cape Breton has ever known, So, I figured the only way I’m going to maintain this job playing with these people is just focus, focus, focus! It was incredible what I endured in that period but I got an education in fiddling because of it and expanded my abilities as an accompanist.”

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‘… There are all sorts of reasons for playing music but for me it’s just the joy I find in playing and sharing that with others.’
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Playing with that group of fiddlers, known as ‘the Cape Breton Symphony’ Jerry went on to gain the strongest appreciation for traditional style Cape Breton fiddle music and a staggering repertoire of over a thousand fiddle tunes. That ‘focus’ towards music, still apparent in other areas of his life. When we met this year at Celtic Connections he told me “two months after the legal age for drinking I decided to quit and I work too hard at my profession to muck it up with one drunken binge. I enjoy parties as much as the next person but I knew I wanted to play music and play it well. There are all sorts of reasons for playing music but for me it’s just the joy I find in playing and sharing that with others. My character is more the guy who wants to be in the back row, behind some big guy so nobody sees me but when I hear and feel the music well, it just grips me. I’ve never looked at someone and thought I need to play better than you and ‘if’ I ever would want to be competitive then it would just be inwardly, only in trying to develop my own playing so I can play these tunes in the best way I can and pass that love of the music on to others. Music was always my focus, right from these earliest of years, coming down to Cape Breton when I was a teenager. Even at that point I could see so much potential for the way I wanted to live and I thought what I wanted to do would be achievable if I went to Cape Breton. So, I made up my mind, one day Cape Breton would be my home”.

Today, Jerry has become one of Cape Breton’s finest, most respected of ambassadors for traditional fiddle music. All over the world he has toured to places including, Norway, France, Germany, Finland, Mexico, Denmark and of course, Scotland and Ireland. In sessions, tunes he has written, such as ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel” are often heard. His compositions sit so well in the traditional setting that it is hard to comprehend that so many great tunes have been composed by this one person. Then of course, there are his powerfully emotional slow airs and waltzes like, the aptly named ‘My Cape Breton Home’ which he wrote for his father and the beautiful ‘For My Mother Dear’. And of course, joyful tunes such as the reel he penned to celebrate his son, Jerry Junior – the exuberant ‘Little Man’s Homecoming’.

Writing from the earliest age, a prolific composer, Jerry has written hundreds of tunes, an outstanding contribution by him to the world of traditional music. Tunes which fit so well, not only in to Cape Breton’s musical style but also into Scottish and Irish music, both of a great interest to Jerry. Books containing his tunes are available through his website and from publisher Paul Cranford. In addition, material and an interview between Jerry and Paul Cranford is available on Fiddler Magazine’s site.

And, what review of this man’s liftetime’s work could be complete without a reflection on his discography where, so many of the sets he has recorded, feature tunes written by himself and deliver in his unique style. A sweet player like his father, Jerry’s slow tunes are full of emotion and his lively tunes, full of energy and joy. His recordings include: ‘Jerry Holland’ (1976), the much acclaimed ‘Master Cape Breton Fiddler’ (1982) where he pioneered a new, groundbreaking sound for Cape Breton music accompanied by Hilda Chiasson on piano and Dave MacIsaac on guitar. His albums continuing with Lively Steps’ (1987); ‘Jerry Holland Solo’ (1988); ‘The New Fiddle’ (1990); A Session With Jerry Holland’ (1990); ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1992); ‘The Fiddlesticks Collection’ (1995); ‘Fiddler’s Choice’ (1998); ‘Crystal Clear’ (2000) and ‘Parlor Music’ (2005). Jerry has released eleven albums and appeared as a guest musician on over twenty-five more, a strong influence on Cape Breton musicians, today and tomorrow.

A performer and a composer, Jerry is also a teacher. Since his first teaching experience in 1979, following an invite to teach at Port Townshead, Jerry has passed on his musical knowledge at fiddle camps and workshops all around the world. Teaching at home today in Cape Breton, Jerry’s work as a Director of The Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music (set up in 2007) has given him a great satisfaction. Also involved is his son, Assistant Director of the School, 23 year old Jerry Holland Junior. Like his father, Jerry Jr. has been in the music industry from the earliest age. Jr. has organised many events around Cape Breton and travelled North America as a drummer. Having toured with his father, he has also played with greatly respected names Buddy MacMaster, JP Cormier, Ashley MacIsaac and Howie MacDonald. In addition, Jerry Junior is well positioned for his work at The Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music through his involvement over the past decade in Celtic Colours International Festivals, the organising of live music events around Cape Breton and has been a regular contributor to many traditional music programmes.

In a cultural celebration of Cape Breton’s traditional music, The Ceilidh Trail links music events at venues along a 67 mile route which offers magnificent views of dramatic coastlines and rolling farmland. A route, not that different from the one first sketched out twenty years ago for a fiddle playing beginner from Scotland to visit Cape Breton. In 1960, when Jerry Snr. taught his son the fiddle, and instilled in him the joys of sharing music with others, he could never have imagined how his son’s music today has rippled out around the world to touch and give enjoyment to so many people.

As a performer and composer, what a rich cultural legacy, Jerry has put in place for today and for tomorrow, for future generations to discover and enjoy, far beyond the shores of Jerry Holland’s Cape Breton home.

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Books containing his tunes are available through his website

www.jerryholland.com and from publisher Paul Cranford www.cranfordpub.com. Two new recordings from Jerry are due out soon.
Material and an interview between Jerry and Paul Cranford is available on Fiddler Magazine’s site www.fiddle.com

Buy Jerry Holland's CDs from The Listening Post