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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