Jerry Holland

February 23, 1955-July 16, 2009

Farewell to Master Cape Breton Fiddler

by Kathy Bawn

Jerry_Holland.jpgA sad day in 2009 was July 26, when Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He was 54 years old. Holland was an acclaimed performer, known for a sweet tone that complemented the sometimes rough, always energetic, musical tradition of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He was also known for his mentoring and teaching, and for the many tunes he wrote in the Cape Breton and Irish traditions. Jerry's best known tune, Brenda Stubbert's, has become a session favorite.

Fiddle music was brought to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, by Scottish immigrants during the Highland Clearances. These immigrants were from the wilder and remote regions of Scotland, the Highlands and the Hebrides Islands. Primarily Gaelic speakers, they brought to Cape Breton a traditional culture that had been little affected by economic development in more cosmopolitan eastern Scotland. It is generally thought that traditional Scottish fiddle and dance forms are better preserved in Cape Breton than in Scotland itself. Cape Breton fiddling is very energetic, characterized by strong accents and drive up-bows. Jerry Holland was a master of this traditional style.

His strong association with Cape Breton notwithstanding, Jerry was born in Boston, to parents who had emigrated from Eastern Canada. As a boy, Jerry learned fiddling first from his father, then from family friends, and by listening his father's 78 recordings of Cape Breton fiddlers like Johnny Wilmot and Irish fiddlers like Michael Coleman and James Morrison. Jerry's family was part of a lively community of Canadian expatriates, who sought to keep alive the "music from home." Growing up in this community, Jerry grew to be an acclaimed fiddler and step-dancer at an early age. In his late teens, he became part of the Cape Breton Symphony, a fiddle group that performed on a weekly television show from 1974-1977. The Cape Breton Symphony included some of the great old names of Cape Breton fiddling, Winston Fitzgerald and Angus Campbell. This was a demanding gig -- Jerry estimated that he learned at least 1000 tunes for the show -- and a wonderful opportunity for him to soak up the style and nuance of great fiddlers from an older generation.

In 1975, Jerry moved to Cape Breton where he worked as a carpenter, while continuing to develop as musician and composer. He recorded 13 albums, and published two books of his own compositions. He was much in demand as a teacher and was eager to pass on the Cape Breton tradition to other fiddlers. Southern California fiddlers Jan Tappan, Alaina Smith and Chris Hendershot all have fond memories of workshops with Jerry -- memories of his humor and his effectiveness in conveying the essence of Cape Breton fiddling. Interestingly, the same word that is invariably used to describe Jerry's tone -- "sweet" -- is also the word most often used to describe his personality as well.

The world of fiddling lost Jerry too soon. But we're left with memories, recordings, tunes which the internet now allows us to share easily. If you've never been to Cape Breton, never heard Jerry play, check out this video of a session in a club in Mabou, on the northwest coast of Cape Breton:

Better yet, if you want to keep Jerry's spirit alive, pick up your instrument and play Brenda Stubbert's. Jerry posted written music and audio files of this and other tunes on his website to help you out:

Through his tunes and performances Jerry Holland introduced Cape Breton music to many people who would have never heard it. Through his diligent and respectful listening, he helped to preserve an important fiddle tradition. The world of fiddling misses Jerry Holland, his memory and the tradition he was part live on in his tunes.