An Interview with Jerry Holland

Excepts from a book published by Utah State University Press in conjunction with Cape Breton University

In the Blood: Cape Breton Conversations

by Burt Feintuch

photographs and afterword by Gary Samson

Scroll down for the interview


Introduction by Burt Feintuch

Jerry Holland died young, at 54, on July 16, 2009, after two years of illness. He fought hard, but, inevitably, he lost. Jerry was one of Cape Breton's most influential and celebrated fiddlers. Beyond the island itself, there are few musicians in the world of Celtic music who don't play Jerry Holland's compositions, who haven't listened to his exquisite and expressive playing. As a musician myself, I viewed his musical abilities with something approaching wonderment.

He was born in 1955 in Brockton, Massachusetts. His father, originally from New Brunswick, played the fiddle. His mother was Quebecois. He talks here about his father's deliberate and powerful influence on his music. Jerry grew up at a time when the Boston area was rich in Cape Breton music. Halls in Roxbury and Brookline were alive with the dance music of Bill Lamey, Angus Chisholm, and many others. Cape Breton musicians came through frequently, visiting family, playing gigs. Jerry began playing when he was about five, becoming part of the thriving musical culture of his elders. A recording of him when he was about six shows him playing with a maturity far beyond what one might expect. Guest appearances on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and the Don Messer Show when he was very young testify to how much a prodigy he was. As a very young man, he joined some of his musical idols on Canadian television as a regular member of the Cape Breton Symphony, a group of fiddlers, playing on the John Allen Cameron Show.

As he relates here, he moved to Cape Breton out of love for the place and the music, landing on his 21st birthday. He had visited regularly during his childhood, and he knew that was where he wanted to be. And there he remained, playing music at home and abroad, working locally with his hands in various trades. It is a hard environment. The tension between love of place and the challenge of making it as a musician runs through this interview.

Here's a little, but telling, Cape Breton story about his early influence. Like a lot of Cape Breton stories, it's about family and social connections. Kinnon Beaton, the marvelous fiddler loved for his dance music, is the son of the late Donald Angus Beaton who was a musical mainstay of his generation. At a time when some were worried that no young people seemed to be taking up the music, Kinnon ended up following in his father's footsteps. In an interview we did in 2003, Kinnon remembered his "folks coming home from a concert in Glendale, talking about the young guy that would step dance and play the fiddle at the same time. That was Jerry Holland. He was 12, I think then, too, or 13. So I started thinking maybe young people can do this." Alarms about the music's demise were premature; that generation produced Jerry Holland, Kinnon Beaton, John Morris Rankin, Brenda Stubbert, Rannie MacLellan and others. Jerry went on to international fame.

Jerry's first album, for Rounder Records, released in 1976, was influential. Then, in 1982, he released an album entitled Master Cape Breton Fiddler, accompanied by Hilda Chiasson on piano and Dave MacIsaac on guitar. Rooted in the tradition, that album, more than any other, defined the modern sound of Cape Breton fiddle music. Two collections of his compositions, published by Paul Cranford, have infused the Cape Breton repertoire on the island and far beyond. His other albums have influenced local musicians and spread around the world.

In the time that has passed since we did this interview, Jerry's fame continued to spread. He became the owner of the Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music, a summer music school in Inverness, established in the mid-'90s. In his last two years, despite serious health problems, he continued to compose and to tour, and, against the odds, his music seemed to grow even more powerful, more expressive, more moving. I saw him perform a few months before his death. He arrived looking weak and ill. But when he got on stage he lit up, and he played beautifully. Afterward, he told me that whenever he played it was as if a jolt of energy infused him. Jerry Holland brought tradition and creativity together, joining them with remarkable musicality. A Cape Breton treasure, his music will endure.

 An Interview with Jerry Holland - Cape Breton musician & composer

October 21, 2000

My father was a real nice fiddler. He wasn't a flash fiddler, but he was the type of ear player who was taught that if you were to learn a tune you were to learn it note by note--the way the person played it. He would go through great pains to learn it just that way. I guess a tune would mature to some extent over time. Sometimes it could be a short period; sometimes it would be a long period. But it would settle in, and he would get comfortable with it, and usually if he was comfortable with it, everyone else enjoyed it. He was a nice player.

When I was born--I was the first of his children--he wanted to pass something down. I think he hadn't played for a period of nine years. He started playing again. I guess, as he said, I took the torch and ran with it from there. He went to great pains to see that I got a start at it and learned what he thought and felt were the basic rules. He certainly gave me my start. I don't know if I'd have the patience to do all of what he did. He was quite a guy.

When he started again, it was mainly house playing. Before that, as a young person, he played dances in the New Brunswick area, as well as Boston. He went to places like the Greenville Café in the Boston area, where a lot of the greats gathered. He played with different accompanists. I don't know if they were so much paying gigs, but they were places where you could sit down and play a session. It was great. He had his own little niche.

I guess one of his earliest influences was Michael Coleman--the Irish style of playing. And I think the next recording that he had heard was Alex Gillis--the Inverness Serenaders. There was Angus Chisholm and then Winston Fitzgerald. His attention went from the Irish music directly to the Cape Breton style of music. He was fascinated with the amount of ornamentation and how clean, how confident, the music sounded. He loved it; he thought it was his final love. And I wasn't to be exposed to anything but that music--that was his view of it.

We were living in Brockton, Massachusetts then. They didn't have a clue what Cape Breton music was. Cape Bretoners came to the Boston area for different reasons, whether it was work or whatever. But they had different clubs and party sessions, and they were kind of a close-knit group. The area that I was brought up in was Ukrainian and Italian. And to have been the style of fiddler that I was then, well, it wasn't understood. When I was in school, I told very few. First off, they wouldn't understand that. And the ones that I did tell--well, I learned to box real good! No, there wasn't a great understanding of that particular type of tradition.

I guess at that point it was a hobby. It certainly was a part of my home life. But my life away from home, as far as being social with kids my own age, and that sort of stuff--my music wasn't a part of that at all.

When I started playing out of the house, because they were non-alcoholic places that were going, and because of the oddity of a young person the age that I was, there were some exceptions made and things overlooked. So a fellow was able to get in and, if nothing else, hear what was taking place, hear some of the performers who offered another version to the tradition and so on. Dances such as Bill Lamey's dances at the Orange Hall, as a for-instance, and Rose Croix Hall in Roxbury--those were wonderful. Those were the building blocks that I started out with. There was another place that was owned by Tom Slaven--it was known as Slaven's. That was in South Huntingdon Avenue in the Jamaica Plain-South Boston area, just close to Brighton. I played guitar for Angus Chisholm there for two-and-a-half years on Sunday nights.

When it came to focusing on Cape Breton, my father pretty well had that decision made for me. I had interests in country music. I don't think I ever would have made a singer only because the encouragement wasn't there. But I enjoyed people like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and all that sort of thing. George Jones. I would have a little transistor radio under my pillow--if I was caught listening to it, I'd be chastised, as it were. "What are you listening to that crap for?" It wasn't the thing to do around home.

I did talent shows, from the time I was maybe six years old, with my father. I'd dance, and around the age of nine or ten I started dancing and playing at the same time. There were some talent shows that were done on television. I did quite a few of them in the Boston area.

I also did the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. I think the first year I did it I was thirteen or fourteen. Then I did it the following year. Then the show got pulled. I think I had the possibility, according to what they said, of going up the ladder from there. I can't remember what the actual offer was, but there was an offer, a "your first kind of big break kind of thing," and my father wouldn't let me go through with it. He figured if you do that you're not going to get an education. And, you know, sometimes when you don't answer the knock of opportunity, it doesn't come back. I've been real fortunate, although in a lot of ways maybe I didn't develop it as much as I could have, or should have, later on in my early years--when I was 18, 19, years old. The John Allan Cameron shows--that opportunity knocked, and we did almost three years of television across Canada, which was wonderful.

That was with the Cape Breton Symphony. I got quite an education from that whole experience. It was an experience you can't buy. On top of that, I got to play with my heroes. And as immature as my talent was, I think my eagerness to learn and be part of it, and to work at carrying my own load--that made up for the difference with these old salts at it. You know what I mean--the fellows that had done it all their lives and knew all the stuff. They took some time, and they were real good in helping a young fellow get off the ground with it. I tried to pay them back with the interest and effort that I put in it. It was quite an experience.

Winston Fitzgerald, Angus Chisholm, and there was Joe Cormier, Wilfred Gillis, John Donald Cameron. What it boiled down to, in the final aspect of it, was Winston, John Donald, Wilfred Gillis, and myself. After that, after I left that situation, they had many different fiddlers as well.

I still lived in the Boston area for most of that. I think that during the last part of the series of shows I made my move here to Cape Breton. It was something that I had made up my mind that I was going to do at the age of 14. I figured I was going to be here some day, no matter what it takes. And on my 21st birthday I was waiting for my furniture to land; it was to land there that day, the 23rd of February. I had bought the house, or put a deposit on it in November of the previous year--that was 1975. And I had got there the 21st, I think, of February, and the furniture landed the 23rd, my birthday. It was real neat. That was in Cape LeMoine.

I'd been coming here before that, with my family. The initial trips were with family friends, the Gillises . His name was Angus Gillis--he was a fiddler as well as a stepdancer, a well-known stepdancer in the Boston area during the period of time that I was there, and before, I'm sure. I followed them down on a summer vacation--1961 was the first year. The Cabot Trail wasn't completely paved at that time.

That instigated another trip the following year. I think for the most part it was every other year, and it got to be an every-year thing up until 1969. In '69 we were all ready to go; the day before we were ready to leave, we went down the beach and I stepped on a bottle in the water and got something like 14 or 15 stitches in my foot. And that kind of put a kibosh to the trip for my father, as far as he viewed it. If I couldn't dance, what was the sense of going? I had different views, but . . .

The following year I came down with them, and I really wanted to stay. There were thoughts that there was a possibility of going to trade school here. We tried, but it didn't work out. It could have, but we didn't have enough time to follow through. Anyway, it was shortly after that that the shows came along, and I had made a couple of trips in between that, coming down to see friends. Angus Gillis had eventually moved here. I think it was in '72, and I would come down and see him, and stay with them, and his wife, Josephine. And I'd get a chance to get around to the different dances. My father had bought a couple of places over the years in Cape Breton, when he lived in Boston. It was kind of a temporary place to come, as far as the way he viewed it. I'd seen that it was a place to come. You were getting fresh air, considerably less intimidation in comparison to what the city offered, and the list goes on.

I guess the easiest way, and the shortest way to say what it takes to live here--I said to a friend of mine, I said, "Look, man--you have no idea how much it costs to be this poor." If I chose to live anywhere else I could most likely do so much better. But I love the area here, I love my friends here.

It's a day-to-day struggle. It's an incredible struggle. I'm a carpenter by trade. I do cabinets. I've done mechanic work. You have to turn your hand to some of that stuff--you wear many different hats in the run of a year in order to pay the bills and that sort of thing. It seems like there's always periods of time through the year that you have to take your lesson book out and chew on water. You know, things are pretty lean. I haven't developed what maybe is possible as far as a music career for myself.

A lot of that's because I'm here. To get anywhere else from here is a considerable cost. I've thought about leaving at different times, but it wouldn't do any good. It wouldn't do me justice, and it wouldn't do my career justice. It just wouldn't work out. I've got a son here who I love dearly. He's my best friend. I'll hang around until he's out on his own and takes some direction in life, and when that happens and Dad is not so important, and he's got his own family to deal with, well, that will maybe be a different story.

I started working at the age of fourteen. I wanted to work. It gave me an independence, dollar-wise. It was great. It was wonderful. In Brockton, I was in a school program where I worked half a day and went to school half a day. I worked in a tire store as a mechanic's apprentice and tire jockey, that kind of thing, for about two and a half years. And during that same period when there wasn't work there I could make good money at the trade of vinyl and aluminum siding. There were friends of mine and my father's who, if I had any idle minutes at all, they taught me the trade, and there was all kinds of work, whenever I wanted it.

It was quite a move. As I said, I was here at the age of 21. I did everything from work in little coffee shops, in some cases as a second job and a third job. As a young fellow I could go on three and four hours sleep. And I was just wired for sound; I was ready to go, you know, as it were. I didn't have anything to do with drink, or the smoking-up business, or any of that kind of aspect, so I had all kinds of energy and all kinds of drive to make a buck. I had a hobby of street cars--hot rods, that sort of thing. Buy them, sell them, race them. I'd build them. I did all that kind of thing, and on a shoestring basis as well. It wasn't anything that was elaborate. It was just something different. It was a hobby that I enjoyed.

Now, in coming here, even the very basics of making the adjustment took over a year. I was a light sleeper, and it took a very short period of time to rejuvenate the batteries as it were. In the Boston area, when I couldn't sleep I'd go down to the coffee shop. You could sit there and talk to the cabbies or whatever, sit there for an hour, until you were tired enough to go back home and go to bed. But in Cape Breton they rolled up the sidewalks at 7 o'clock--where there were sidewalks. It was incredible. I'm a smoker. If you ran out of cigarettes at 11 o'clock at night, you were in serious trouble, unless you could get to sleep. Because gas was cheap, and I had a couple of dollars--you'd have that craving and be that wired, and you'd want to have something to do. I would go as far as Port Hawkesbury--50, 60, 70 miles for a drive for a pack of cigarettes. I've come to Sydney for cigarettes in the middle of the night. I mean it was ridiculous. It was more an excuse to get out and drive. Once you get to a spot, you get a chance to meet people as well. I say you'd come for a pack of cigarettes but you'd stand around and talk and maybe visit at the same time, depending on the time of night. There were all kinds of excuses to get out to drive.

The actual transition did take over a year. The situation in the city, as you can appreciate, was if one store didn't have it, you'd go to the next store. Here, there was only the one store. If they didn't have it, it would take two weeks to order it. And the idea of having to order something wasn't in my understanding, coming from where I came from. To deal with that kind of thing when you needed something or figured that you should have something right then and there, and being used to going and having that kind of stuff available to you--it was quite a shock, a hell of a culture shock. There were a lot of things that made up the difference, things that were real neat about it. But there was some stuff that was really tough

The music scene was quite hot at that time. It was really good for me, especially where I was considered as a television personality, celebrity or whatever. I really didn't take advantage of what I could have, and should have, done. I looked at it as a hobby. I would have liked to have had a career, an active career, I should say, in music, but I never looked at it that way. I didn't think it was there for me. And I guess there was a period of time that it didn't exist for Cape Breton music in general, the semi-stardom, or whatever. The shows were great, but there was no great follow-up to it. I guess I didn't do anything then to help that along either. I was maybe 22, 23, 24 years old, and I lived a very modest life, and to some extent still do. As I say, there's periods of the year that you take out your lesson book and chew on water.

The music at that time was really good. There were all kinds of dances, year round and Saturday afternoon matinee-type things that you could go to play. The Knights of Columbus in the Cheticamp area was really a hot place to go. It was nothing to see 100, 150, 200 people in there. The Doryman took it over. For a period of time there were two and three places going. It was wonderful. The evening dances, the square dances--I played dances in the Cheticamp area for years. Some of it was fiddle music as well as a country crossover kind of thing for round dancing in between times that you'd have square dances. But from the mid-70s to the early 80s, that stuff died out. The extreme interest in it died out. I find there's a certain age of people that missed out a lot because of the drinking laws. They weren't allowed in where there was drinking, and what dances always had survived with no alcohol died off because the interest was to be able to go to a dance where there was alcohol. So, there's a lot of our young people here that don't have the experience of being able to go to a dance and take part in the square dancing. That's too bad because, you know it was just the opposite way before that, and there's a gap there of people who don't have an understanding of what this stuff is and what kind of fun you can have from it. There's not many dances left that run year-round. The only one I can think of off the top of my head would be West Mabou. That's a sin. There were so many, and we're down to one now. That's just heart-breaking.

I've started a session here in the North Sydney area on Thursday nights. It's more on the idea of an Irish session, where you sit in and everybody sits and plays at one time, versus individuals. It's a nice time; it's a meeting place for everybody. For folks here in the area, if they have company and they want to entertain, they can take them there for a meal and listen to music. It's a good place to go and practice. It's a good place to try out new tunes. For me, being a composer, it's "Hey guys, what do you think of this? Do you think this works?" It's a good place to meet new fiddlers and musicians of all kinds. We've had people from Texas. We've had them from the southern states. We've had them from overseas there. And the thing's only been going a year.

There's so many Irish tunes that are in the Cape Breton repertoire here, that are not so much played with the Irish embellishments which defines the styling. I think if you were to take the Irish tunes out of the Cape Breton repertoire you'd have a pretty bare-looking skeleton. You'd be taking at least a minimum 35 to 45 percent of the tunes away. You'd be taking the biggest part of the jigs away from here, and a lot of the reels. Again, people like Angus Chisholm and Winston Fitzgerald, who were very influential to the music of today, looked and learned tunes from, say, the Coleman era, and Morrison, and McGuire. They heard their recordings here, as well as away. I'm talking 78 rpm recordings. Of course they were available here. And they adapted them to their own style and techniques.

So, I'd say Cape Breton music in general is a stew pot, in a sense--there's no one music that stays exactly the same, as least that I'm aware of, as far as traditions go. It all will evolve. It will all grow. As my father said, "Look--you don't have to like every fiddler you ever see, but there's something you can learn from every fiddler you see and hear. And take the best of what they have to offer and develop it."

I guess my own style, in just a very few words, went from quite clean to quite ornate over the years. The television shows, as a for-instance, being maybe the biggest influence in my playing, demanded a cleanliness, and I also looked for a confident sound, a relaxed sound, as well. The more I've learned and experienced, I've added considerably more ornamentation--drones (as I say to some of my students, groans). The pipes were quite influential in this music, as you can imagine or appreciate. Simulation of that type of sound is acquirable as a form of coloration to the music. There's ornamentation that's out of this particular tradition, such as in the Irish tradition, that's usable and that does get used in this kind of music, and was used long before I came along. There's a few diehards that don't want to admit that, but there's still documentary proof such as old wire recordings, cylinder recordings, as well as tape recordings, and obviously the disks--78s and so on--of our own players from Cape Breton here applying some of the Irish techniques.

There's quite a bit of coloration that I've added, depending on the setting that I'll play in. If you're playing for a dance, there's only so much coloration, because of the amount of accompaniment that you may have. I choose to have one, no more than maybe two, accompanists that know each other's stylings real well, to where there isn't a chord clash, to take my attention away from what I'm doing. I really like to have a rock solid kind of accompaniment to add to my playing, and I like to be able to count on that so I can put everything, my full undivided attention, into playing. I think, in a lot of ways, that's why I often go with one accompanist versus two. In playing with two, you don't have to play with as much coloration, or I feel you don't have to play with as much coloration. You've got to let them breathe and have their spot, too. And they'll shine. With one accompanist, you look to thicken it up a little bit more.

So there's quite a wide range of coloration that can be used, and I do use. It's selected, as it were, to portray different eras of style, even in some case just plain emotions. For the uneducated ear some of the stuff that sounds like it's sloppy playing, so I'll look to play something that's considerably cleaner to show that there's a considerable contrast.

My concerts are kind of a teaching session, indirectly, to educate my audience in a place that I haven't been before. I think that's more fair to them, and it's more fair in their having an understanding what my abilities are. It's quite thought out, and I have a great interest in it. I have a great respect for what the music is and was. And being an influential person in this particular styling of music, in Cape Breton, I feel a responsibility to help direct it in a very careful kind of a fashion.

I'm a very simple person. I haven't got time to put on airs for anybody. I'm just me, and I don't change if you meet me at the grocery store or if you meet me at the airport or in under the car, you know? I'm the same person, and I won't try to let on I'm anybody but myself.

I believe there's a thing out there--that people play for the wrong reasons. I spoke of that last night until 2 o'clock with friends of my son. I said, "Look, what I think is the heart of this stuff is that you play to please yourself, and what pay you get back from that is what the response is from other people that appear to enjoy it or get enjoyment from it." I said, "That kind of response you can't buy; you can't pay for it. And you can't put a value on it for what it does for you." There's people that have and do make a business of it and play specifically for that one reason. In some cases you can immediately hear it in their music. In other cases, you'll eventually hear it in their music.

There are a lot of different influences in our music here today. I suppose there's got to be room for growth, but I think it's growing at a rate, with such different influences, that it's getting distorted. That scares me, because I see a lot of the young people that are hearing what I consider as somewhat distorted music today and thinking that that's the way it should sound. And that's where they're starting out--that's their starting point. There's a lot missing in their having an understanding of what the music actually was and where it started, how it evolved. I think a lot of parents are looking for their children to be the next superstar.

The point that I'm getting at is that they're playing for the wrong reasons. And there's a lot of immature fiddlers out there, ability-wise, who have been viewed as wonderful. People say, "Aren't they wonderful for their age" and all this sort of thing. Well, once they start believing that, which some of them do, the learning process stops. The growth process stops. And some expect to get the same kind of response when they're 19 or 20, but they haven't grown since they were 12 years old or something like that, as far as their abilities. All of a sudden it's an awful shock to them.

One fellow made kind of a crude comment, but it was funny. He said, "My God. I think that fellow's father must keep a cement block on his head," he said, "to keep him small." That's awful. But you hear all kinds of things, and I haven't got time to comment on a lot of that kind of stuff. But I will say that it does scare me to see this evolve at the rate of speed that it is, without any real thought going into it. A lot of it is to broaden the appeal of a show out beyond the Causeway, as it were. It opens the door to a bigger appeal factor. But a lot of our young people are seeing that here and thinking that that's what it's all about. There's other music that has been out there, and it's labeled as Cape Breton music, and some come here and realize that, "God, it's something completely different.

It worries me where this music is headed. I guess I was one that would look to put my foot out and say, "Well, let's try this, see if this will work. Will this open more doors? Will this open more doors?" I was like that in my early years. Today I'd be more the type who'd say, "Let's think about this a while. Let's hold back and look the whole situation over." I'd be more conservative, although I learn new stuff every day, and that's what I look to do--acquire new technical stuff or whatever.

It's just a tough go when you have to be a carpenter, work on everything else to pay the bills while you're trying to do that kind of thing. I've never had a real opportunity to sit down and really work at what I'd like to work at, as far as music goes. I'd love to have the time, to not have the worries--are my bills going to be paid this month or next month or that kind of thing. You know, could I have some breathing space to sit down and really do what I think is up there in my poor brain, and to actually sit down and develop some stuff with friends that are accompanists. And really put some time into putting something together that would, hopefully, be a legacy for my son to have.

I think I could offer so much more if I had a little bit of time stress-free. I think I have offered the tradition here something. I won't put a value on it because to one person it may be worth a lot and to the next person it may not be worth two cents. I'm sure I've offered something. I've done my share to put it on the map, and I work hard at being respected for the fact that I get to a place on time and that I'm where I'm supposed to be, and all that sort of thing. Whether it's here or whether it's across the waters or whether it's stateside or whatever, I think I've got a good reputation. And having a good reputation puts a good color on what I stand for and what I play. And that's important. It's important to me, anyway. And it's a hard job. It's a damn hard job today.

My very most popular tune came out in about seven minutes. "Brenda Stubbert's Reel" came out in about seven minutes. Other tunes that are getting quite popular came out in about that same amount of time. But other tunes, such as a tune I wrote for my mother, took two and a half years. If it's there and ready to come out, it's like a chick coming out of an egg shell. When it's ready, it will come.

Sometimes, I try to force it, and it won't come. I look at what I forced, and I say, "How could I have been so stupid?" The better of the tunes come within about five minutes. But how can I say it? There's a little bit of a preparation that your mind goes through that I guess you really can't develop. It's got to be there. I guess that's the easiest way of putting it. When it's ready, it will come out.

I don't necessarily have to have the fiddle in my hand. I've been driving truck or whatever, or working out on the job, or that kind of thing, and all of a sudden you'll start a phrase and that's not like anything else but you can build off it. Next thing, you've got a tune.

In some cases I write it out right away. I've written one out on a board, so I wouldn't forget it. I was on a job up on a roof. A lot of that stuff, that's the way it happens. But I find, as I was saying, that the different life stresses that you have, the more that you've got coming at you, dries up the time that you'd like to be saying, you know, "What about this? Or what about that aspect of it?" I don't even have time to think about the fiddle, even when I'm teaching it. It's a different thing all together. You haven't got time to work at what you'd really like to be at.

In this business, you can't bank on anything until it's in your pocket. Like I say, I am blessed with the abilities to turn my hands to many different things. The older and stupider a fellow gets, the more scared I get of damage to my hands. I've had carpal tunnel operations and that sort of thing from ripping and tearing and hammering all my life. And I guess after one operation I made up my mind that maybe I should look at fiddle music as some bit of a career, and see if that will pay the milk bill, as it were. It's a struggle. It's a damn hard struggle. I wish there was somebody out there that had all kinds of money far more than they knew what to do with, that would look to invest in the tradition and give a fellow a little bit of stress-free time to develop stuff and to preserve what we have here for how good it really is.

There's no one aspect of work that's available to me here year-round, or that I can bank on, and it's just a juggling act continually. "Well, what's going to come in this week, and how, what hat do I have to wear in order to bring in this week's worth?" It's quite a piece of work. It also keeps a fellow's mind quite active.

The wit of some people here is just outstanding. There's nothing like it. And I get such a kick out of how dry some of the characters can be. The wit is incredible. I just love it. You can be cut down so quickly, or somebody can get cut down so quickly. With just even a look, or a one- or two-word comment that says so much, knowing the character that's saying it. I just live for that kind of wit. Some work at it, and some just have it right on the tip of their tongue all the time. It's there all the time. Look, I just love it. Just love it.

There's times when I've been away two and three weeks with playing, and I'm real glad to get home, and I might be home a few days and go down to talk to a couple of real characters, down the road here, that I think so very dearly of. I'll only go in for five minutes and be there the whole afternoon. And can't get clear of them. And they're funny. Oh my, my, my, my--they're funny. And they're brothers. Their son is out here with my son today. My God, the wit of those fellows. They've got the biggest hearts in the world. They'd give you the shirt off their back, and they're like ourselves--they've got nothing themselves, you know. But whatever they've got, they'd give you. There's no end of what they'd ever do for you.

My second tune book will be out soon. Paul Cranford's been an incredible friend. I think he's the best friend a man can have. He's truthful, he's honest, he's extremely dedicated to this music, and an absolute workaholic at it. He doesn't let up for a second. I've been working on this book with him over the years--the last twelve years. But the last year has been just so intense. Every spare minute that I've had he's been working the butt right off of me to get this thing as clean as possible a book as it can be. There's always some little bit of an error here or there. But he's gone over this so often, and we've all been over it so often, my hopes are that it's glitch-free. But you always find something. It's taken every second of time that I thought I was going to have to do everything from mowing the lawn to painting the trim on the eaves of my garage here. Just in the last week and a half I bought paint for the eaves on the garage, and I want to paint the bathroom. And the cans of paint are right still at the door where I brought them in and dropped them.

The phone doesn't stop here. There's usually anywhere from two to seven visitors, in fairness, a day. But some days there's ten people in and out through the door here in the run of a day. It takes time. You want to be gracious and kind to everybody that comes through the door.

There's a difference between years ago and today. That was the difference in playing years ago and playing today. You waited until the phone rang before you'd go to, or before you'd get, a gig. And the type of person I am, I find it almost impossible--I can't call and say, "Have you got any spots open?" I could sell Joe Blow down the street, you know, ten thousand times a day if I believed in what he was doing. I could sell him ten thousand times a day, and I wouldn't hesitate in calling the Pope. But to sell myself, I just can't do it. Now, I've had management of sorts for a short period of time, and a booking agent for a very short period of time, but that stuff just didn't work out. It just didn't work out. When I say a short period of time, it was under a year in both situations. Now whether I was being fair to them and trying to develop all what they could have for me possibly is another question. It is a small community that would accept the type of stuff that I offer as far as it's being an instrumental type of evening, whether it be a concert or a dance away from here, whether it's workshops. You'd have an accompanist--it's such a specialized thing. And the management that I had dealt with considerably different types of music where they didn't know how to deal with it as far as I'm concerned.

I guess there were possibilities of farming out some of my publishing. I thought about it--I guess I'm getting a hundred percent of no publishing, to some extent, if you know what I mean--no active publishing--in doing it myself, versus fifty percent of little or nothing that farming it out would do. I think part of the thing that I'd like to have stress-free time to do is to develop a little bit of the stuff that never got developed, such as publishing. Getting it into the hands of people that would have interest in recording it and so on. There's that aspect of my music that I'd like to see developed. I'd like to see the right kind of management program for myself, something that would give me a little bit of time at home that I owe my son. But I'm still willing to pay for that in the aspect of travel--whether it takes me to the moon or not, it doesn't matter as long as I can make some little bit of a living and have some little bit of a home life. That's all I want. And a little bit of time to develop what thoughts and possibilities are open for what I think music can be, and what it has been for me, and what I'd like to see it be. That would be the ideal of it all.

When you're trying to make a living in the fashion I am, it all circles around having to eat and how scarce work is here. It's a real depressed area, work-wise. It's rare to hear of new jobs, taking into consideration all the jobs that are being lost, from lack of security or just companies pulling out of here, and so on. So, it's a real tough place in a way.

But in the summer the opportunities for music here are wonderful. I said to one fellow, "I've made x amount of dollars because I've played these amount of nights, and I did a couple of gigs in the day." And he said, "Jesus, that averages out to be this amount." He said, "Jesus, that's damn good money." And not being from here he thought it was year-round.

I said, "You have to work like hell. You've got two months to make it." He said, "That's a lot of money in two months." I said, "Yeah, and we've got ten months to spend it in." In other words, that was your whole living. He didn't quite grasp that--it went whoosh, right over the top of the head. He called me about three weeks later. He said, "I didn't get it when you said this to me." He called me three weeks later to tell me that. I got an awful kick out of that.

It's so little that I play here any more. A friend of mine said, "Jesus, have you priced yourself out of playing here altogether?" I said, "What the heck are you talking about? I'm playing for less today than I did fifteen years ago." You know, actually I'm playing for less than half of the ones that are playing. But there are so many here. I don't know what the answer is. There's dances that I play for here--not so much a concert setting, unless you go to the summer festivals and play at a concert there. I teach at the Gaelic College, or have taught at the Gaelic College the last couple of years. Teaching there and playing nights, there were a couple of weeks that I played every night of the week while teaching. You get to the end of some of those weeks, boy, and I'll tell you, you don't know which end is up. You don't know which end of the fiddle to blow in.

In the fall, winter, and spring, I'll teach privately. I keep that down to a minimum because first off, from what I understand, I charge only half of what is considered average for the Halifax area, as a for-instance. I know the people here haven't got it. I know if I went for lessons in something that I was interested in, whether it be musical or computer-wise, or whatever, I'd only be able to afford so much, being what I am and who I am. It's the same thing. I could only afford about the same kind of thing as what I'm asking. I try to keep it all within one day, for what amount of students that I have, so it doesn't screw up the rest of the week, as far as the possibility of making a living. I enjoy teaching as long as I see the people have the interest and show progress and that are taking it serious.

This interview, it's a treat for me, too, because it gives me a chance to sit down and drink coffee and talk. And I don't do much of either. I drink a lot of coffee, but I don't get a chance to sit down or to chinwag like I am. So, it's my pleasure.


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last upddate 10/29/10