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The Passing of a Legend: Mourning Jerry Holland

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, August 1, 2009

Local friends and fans of Jerry Holland are mourning the death last month of the Cape Breton fiddling legend, who maintained close ties to both the Greater Boston and Irish music communities.

Mr. Holland, who had been battling cancer the past two years, died on July 16 at the age of 54. A memorial service and celebration of his life was held in Bras d'Or, Nova Scotia, on July 21.

Celebrated a musician as he was, performing in concerts and festivals the world over, Mr. Holland was equally renowned as a composer of tunes and as a teacher and mentor for untold numbers of fiddlers, some of whom — such as Kimberley Fraser and Doug Lamey, both Boston-area residents — have themselves become top-flight players.

Born in Brockton, Mr. Holland became involved at a very young age in the Dudley Street dance hall scene that was a locus for Boston's traditional music aficionados. While most of the halls featured Irish music, the Cape Breton community had its own place for enjoyment, the Rose Croix. It was here — and at weekly dances in Brookline's Orange Hall, run by fiddler Bill Lamey — that Mr. Holland first became immersed in the music through step-dancing as well as fiddling.

Mr. Holland's father, Jerry Sr., was himself an avid fiddler whose repertoire extended to the Irish tradition, and the younger Holland grew up with a healthy respect for the likes of Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran, as well as Cape Breton stalwarts Angus Chisholm, Bert Foley, and Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald.

In an interview with the Boston Irish Reporter last year, Mr. Holland reflected on his musical upbringing: "I guess this exposure to the Irish musicians appealed to the radical in me, because I enjoyed the idea of playing Irish tunes in the Cape Breton style, using different ornamentations. It certainly opened up the possibilities of taking elements of different styles and creating something new."

After numerous visits to Cape Breton, Mr. Holland moved there permanently in 1974, and went about the business of putting his stamp on the island's music tradition. Said Janine Randall, a childhood friend and frequent accompanist of Mr. Holland, "Jerry had all these different influences to draw upon, so that's why he developed such a unique sound, where the tunes are something you listen to."

Mary Lamey, daughter of Bill Lamey, adds: "Jerry broke the mold, and the proof is how he was accepted when he moved to Cape Breton. The tunes he's written, in particular, as well as the modern style he has, were very influential to the fiddlers he would play with in Cape Breton."

Doug Lamey, grandson of Bill Lamey, said, "He has touched the music of so many musicians, and his compositions match up with those of James Scott Skinner, the Gows, and William Marshall, just to name a few. If you ever read through one of his music books, you'll find it's a great way to spend a day."

Although strongly identified with the Cape Breton tradition, Mr. Holland had many admirers in the Irish music community. One of the most anticipated highlights at last year's ICONS Festival was a special concert pairing him with guitarist John Doyle; the duo played to an overflowing crowd, which brought them back for three encores.

As news of Mr. Holland's death circulated last month — and tributes and reminiscences proliferated across the Internet — many were quick to note that his fame never overshadowed the kindness, humor, and generosity of spirit he shared with others, whether as teacher, musician, or friend.

Randall recalled a concert earlier this year in which Mr. Holland had asked her to accompany him on piano. "As we completed the concert he told the audience I was one of the finest accompanists and that 'this lady here knows more tunes than anyone I know.' To have Jerry say this in front of everyone had to be one of the highlights of my life."

The comments of Abbie MacQuarrie, a college-age Boston-area musician, reflect the experiences of many young people fortunate to have forged a personal connection with Mr. Holland.

"He was so supportive of me over the years and was one of my favorite teachers. Jerry always had a smile and a joke for me — he used to tell me that I was small enough to fit in a mail slot. He will be honored for his incredible playing and his contribution to Cape Breton music, but those who were lucky enough to meet him will remember Jerry for his kind personality and, of course, his sense of humor. I am missing him already."