Jerry Holland’s life connected him directly to older musical traditions, particularly the fiddle music of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. His father was a fiddler from the same New Brunswick village as Don Messer and when he emigrated to the Boston area he already played with Maritime and Acadian stylings. Jerry Senior was in his mid-fifties when Jerry was born, and from the cradle young Jerry was nurtured to be a fiddler. When he was growing up, his father made sure to expose him first-hand to many of the greatest players in both the Irish and Cape Breton communities. Summers often included musical trips to Cape Breton. Weekends included gigs with Angus Chisholm, Bill Lamey, John Campbell, and others. Eventually, as an eighteen year old, Jerry got to play alongside some of his heroes in The Cape Breton Symphony. His repertoire grew quickly, his compositional skills blossomed, and by the time he was twenty-one he recorded his acclaimed debut album for the Rounder label.
Jerry and I were friends for close to thirty years. For the first few years I would pay multi-day visits to him at his home where, when time permitted, we would teach each other tunes one-on-one. Jerry never had to write down the tunes I taught him. Once learned, they never vanished from his long-term memory. In my case, trying to develop both my ear and my notational skills, I would transcribe his playing and then have him critique my notation. Eventually, after nearly ten years, we realized that we had enough raw material arranged for a book. In 1988, personal computers were just becoming powerful enough for desktop publishing, so we assembled a first edition of Jerry Holland’s Collection of Fiddle Tunes. From that time on, all the books in The Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series benefited from Jerry’s helpful suggestions.
Jerry worked as a carpenter and contractor until the mid-’90s. By that time, his fame was mounting and so he made music his full-time living. He combined teaching with performing and as a result, after participating in hundreds of festivals all over the world, his music and influence are widespread. As a fiddler, as a composer, and as a friend –– to me and many others –– Jerry Holland will not be forgotten. –– Paul Stewart Cranford, Cape Breton
Jerry Holland made several tours around Scotland and Ireland and it was on one of these early trips, about twenty years ago, that we first met. I was learning the fiddle at the time, and word of mouth recommendations identified Jerry as a musician I owed it to myself to catch in concert. However, I can still remember that it was not until he played that I was sure as to which one was “the great Jerry Holland.” Unassuming, almost shy when singled out for praise, I found him to be a very modest, grounded, humorous, and approachable person. Years later, in 2009, with many meetings in between, we met again as friends but it was a bittersweet reunion. Jerry was in Scotland to open the Celtic Connections Festival with a high-profile night of Cape Breton music, but behind the scenes there were those who knew that Jerry was losing a two-year fight against cancer, and that this would be his last tour of Scotland.
Taking on the emotional challenge of writing a tribute article under these circumstances, we talked about his years spent playing the fiddle, the miles travelled, the friendships made. I recall I smiled when he joked with me –– “I’d have gone through life as the guy in the back row, the one who can’t be seen because he’s behind some big fella but I just so loved the music.” He said he had wanted to share the strong emotions he felt, the joys and sorrows that touched him in music, he wanted to express and communicate these feelings with others, and that this wish to share music with others was what had put him on a stage: “It wasn’t about being famous, being a somebody...” He considered everyone to be a somebody, and believed everyone had the right to play and be encouraged in their own enjoyment and fulfillment through music.
Jerry explained, “When I play, I just want to communicate with the audience, touch people with the power of the melody, make new friendships, rekindle and enjoy old friendships forged through a common appreciation of music.” When time was now so precious, he didn’t want to speak publicly about his illness –– better, he said, that time was spent living, and music was his life. He wanted to play for as long as he could. And now, just as he had learned from so many great masters, Jerry wanted to know he would leave a similar legacy to inspire others. He hoped his tunes might live on after him to be passed down to following generations until the tunes lived on themselves and no one any longer knew who Jerry Holland was –– that his music had been just another contribution to the great well of traditional music, there for all to discover, share, and enjoy.
But we are continuing to see how much the person, not just the musician, is being missed. Following Jerry’s death, the internet showed that all around the world Jerry’s life had touched many, many people. Absolutely, Jerry was a person who played from the heart, unequivocally he was a remarkable musician, undoubtably an ambassador for Cape Breton music and culture but surely, more important than all that, quite simply Jerry was a remarkable man. The memories he leaves continue to be treasured and Jerry Holland’s lifetime contribution to music lives on. –– Shona McMillan, Scotland
Touring with Jerry was a guarantee for “etched in brain forever” memories. Everyone who knew him has them, like laughing hysterically with him –– his big adorable frame jiggling, eyes twinkling, and mustache smiling. Worth mentioning was his incredible memory for directions in whatever town that he hadn’t been in for years –– he had his own GPS brain chip and could always help the local driver find the venue. Amazing? Well, yes, and that’s our Jerry. And also worth noting was his obsession with the automobile –– in the dark he could tell you the year, make and model of anything by its taillight. Incredible? Well, yes, and that’s our Jerry. But besides his music, Jerry’s greatest gift that I witnessed, over and over again, was his ability to embrace people with his maritime love. I imagine the old Holland “Boston Maritime” household as this place where wayward folks lost across the border could find “home.” Jerry created this atmosphere wherever in the world he went. For example, often after a gig we’d be unpacking the car and between the fiddles would be this mysterious bag –– of groceries(?). The next morning I’d awake to a busy laughing maritime kitchen with Jerry at the helm, fresh coffee wafting through the air, and our mesmerized hosts (unimaginably happy and proud) practically falling out of their chairs laughing at Jerry’s jokes and stories. It smelt and felt so good –– at home on the road with my hero, my big brother Jerry frying up fishcakes. –– Daniel Lapp, Pender Island, B.C.
I never met a more emotive player or a better composer of fiddle tunes than Jerry Holland. By his late twenties he had arrived at his own personal style and was playing with extraordinary depth and maturity, ever conscious of the effect of sequence in medleys. Jerry Holland was a genius who knew the worth of his music but he never lost his blue collar humility, remaining gracious and accessible to his many admirers and always eager to learn a good tune from anyone. He was probably the first Cape Breton fiddler to envision a recording of fiddle tunes as a unified work with an intended audience of the entire world, and the first to participate fully in the chord and arrangement choices. Most of all I remember the epic quality of his music. What classical composers could achieve only with a full orchestra, he was able to invoke with a bow and four strings: inner tsunamis and volcanoes as well as placid lakes of phenomenal depth.
–– Jody Stecher, San Francisco
[Read more! For several more remembrances of Jerry –– from James Kelly, Paul MacDonald, and others –– as well as five previously unpublished tunes by Jerry and one written for Jerry by Daniel Lapp, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the winter 09/10 issue!]
To purchase books and CDs by Jerry, please visit:
www.cranfordpub.com or www.jerryholland.com
Photos: top: by Carol Kennedy; bottom: by Jack Rowell