The Time I Played With Elvis

Written by Max MacDonald.

Celtic Connections Festival ClubI made my first trip to Scotland in January of 1996. The purpose of the visit was to conduct research at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. My business partner and I had hatched the idea to create what would become the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton. We wanted to see a large Celtic festival in action and Celtic Connections, although only in its third year of existence, was already a huge event spanning almost three weeks in length.

Each night, Celtic Connections hosts a Festival Club after the evening’s concerts. This is a lively, informal gathering of artists and fans where the drink and tunes are served up in abundance. Growing up on an Island inhabited by 160,000 people doesn’t prepare you for attending a festival in a big city like Glasgow. The first night at the Festival Club it seemed as if there were 160,000 people in the lobby alone and we didn’t know any of them.

We decided the best policy was to split up and dive into the throng of people. Not long after, I was asked by a group of people where I was from. They had heard my funny (to them) accent and were curious. I welcomed the opportunity to meet some festival attendees. I told them I was from Nova Scotia, actually an Island called Cape Breton. The first words I heard in return were, “Do you know Jerry Holland?”

“Yes”, I replied. “In fact I did a couple of shows with him one time.” You PLAYED with Jerry Holland?”, one of them said. It was as if I had played with Elvis as far as these folks were concerned.

I was delighted to learn from them that Jerry was revered as a composer and fiddler in traditional music circles in Ireland and Scotland and his tunes were widely known and played there. What an eye opener for me! At that time, in Cape Breton, he was the guy you called if your back step needed repair. This prophet in his own land made the majority of his living as a carpenter. In fact, there were still relatively few traditional artists making a full time living from the music as late as the mid 90s.

This one late night encounter in Glasgow did much to reinforce my instinct that we had something special to celebrate in Cape Breton and that we were on the right track in putting a festival together for that purpose.