Jerry Holland is one of the most influential fiddlers, composers and recording artists in the Celtic music scene today. Based in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, his early music was nurtured one-on-one in the Boston area by some of this century's greatest Cape Breton fiddlers. His tunes are often performed in sessions and concerts by fiddlers, pipers and bands around the world. Interviewer Paul Cranford is a longtime friend. In the late eighties Jerry and Paul collaborated to create Jerry Holland's Collection of Fiddle Tunes, a best-selling book now ready to go into its fourth printing.
Jerry, I've known you for about twenty years now, and from the beginning you were a mature player. Could you summarize your musical development, up until the time we met? Maybe talk about early teachers, how your father helped you, or some of the different people early on.
My father was a nice sweet player. He was an ear player. In his teachings I was to learn tunes note-for-note and phrase-for-phrase as I heard them from the players I learned them from, and I wasn't really to vary from that. Now, as time went on, I heard conflicting things between players playing the same tune, so I made choices as to which version I was going to learn. In some cases I learned both versions and played it in my own stylings, and used them as variations against each other.
In my late teens and early twenties, when the John Allan Cameron Shows started, I had the opportunity to work with my hero, Winston Fitzgerald. Another fiddler that I knew played well who was on the pilot shows and a couple of the first shows was Angus Chisholm. Joe Cormier was another one who was on some of the pilot showsthen Wilfred Gillis and John Donald Cameron, and myself. Now I felt I had to play my best in front of these people, and I worked at it. I had to really buckle down and listen to what old tapes we had, or recordings, whether it be 78s or the LPs, in order to get the right kind of feel.
I was a poor reader and still am to some extent today, although I can read and whistle a tune quicker than I can play it. It's just lack of practice on my part. But these fellows would help; where they either knew the tunes or had a version of the tunes to start with, they would teach them to me. John Donald Cameron was wonderful. Another person that was good at it was Winston. Wilfred would help at it when he could as well.
So you were learning in a combination of ways from those fellows. You were learning from them one-on-one, you were going back with tapes, and going to the books when you couldn't remember.
That's right. There was sheet music that would be provided for the shows. There would be anywhere from sixty to a hundred and twenty tunes. What would happen is that I'd leave from Boston and get into Montreal, and if I had the music beforehand I might have some idea, but I'd never get through the amount of tunes that they'd send. So being a quick learner and having a quick ear, I was able to get through the stuff, in some cases one tune at a time, or one grouping of tunes at a time. I could learn a grouping of tunes in say fifteen minutes. Even tunes I had never heard before, because the pressure was on and these people were gracious enough to take the time with me and play the stuff until I had an earful of it and could reproduce it for them. So it was an incredible pressure, to have to learn so many tunes and play them like I'd always played them, like they were part of my repertoire. It was an unnecessary kind of task that they performed for me, and I'm very grateful for it. I think very highly of them for the time they took with me.
You'd be learning sixty to a hundred and twenty tunes every show?
No, no, for the group of shows that we'd be doing. There might be four or five shows a week, and it would be one week every five or six weeks. It would be a twenty-six week series, or a thirteen week series. In some cases they showed reruns, which gave us a breathing space of three months or better. There'd be pilot shows for another series of shows that they'd want to do and so on.
Since you did this for three years, it sounds like you had the best teachers possible for perhaps as many as a thousand tunes.
Yeah, I would say a minimum of a thousand tunes.
Let's backtrack a little. How old were you when you first started playing sets in public?
Maybe nine, ten years old, something like that, at Bill Lamey's dances. It was Bill's dances that kept the interest there. He had me play one set per night for the most part. A couple of years later I started playing some fiddle at Tom Slavin's place where Angus Chisholm played, and another fellow by the name of Bert Foley. Bert and Angus were the paid fiddlers and I was the guitar player for them. Somebody would give me a break and I'd end up playing the fiddle, too, for a short little stint.
[This article is from the sold out Winter 99/00 issue of Fiddler Magazine. You might also be interested in the Winter 09/10 issue, which features an extensive tribute to Jerry along with several of his tunes, and the Cape Breton 2000 issue, in which there is an interview with Paul Cranford by Jerry Holland.]