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WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Johnny Cunningham, 1956–003


Scots fidder Johnny Cunningham


I'm really lucky. I get to do something that I love to do. I get paid for it--not a lot, but I do get paid for it. I get to be creative. I get to use the energies that I have in a positive way...You know, being alive is the best experience you can have.
— Johnny Cunningham, 1993


One of the greatest contemporary Scots traditional fiddlers, Johnny Cunningham, died of a heart attack on Monday night in New York City. He was 46.

Magpie first met Johnny Cunningham in the late 1970s, when he and his accordianist brother Phil were both members of the Scottish group Silly Wizard. While Phil's accordian pyrotechnics were the real crowd pleasers, we remember being more impressed with Johnny's less flamboyant and more lyrical fiddling. Not that he was a quiet, restrained sort of fellow: We also remember producing a concert with Johnny and his brother a few years later during which the two pelted their hapless opening act with paper airplanes from offstage.

We didn't heard him play a few more times in the 1980s, and then didn't see him or hear him play again until a few years ago. During that time, he spent time in the folk 'supergroup' Relativity, recorded several excellent solo albums, and toured with Irish fiddler Kevin Burke and Breton fiddler Christian Lemaître as part of the Celtic Fiddle Festival.

We ran into him again at an Irish music session in Portland, Oregon around 2000. We'd noticed that this vaguely familiar guy had sat down in the seat next to us, and that he was a pretty good fiddler. No, make that a really good fiddler. Or, rather, a fuckin' amazing fiddler. After a half hour or so, we both figured out why we looked familiar to each other (Ah! Johnny Cunningham!; Ah! Those concerts in Santa Cruz!). In the course of our catching each other up on the last 15 years, Magpie mentioned that we'd just started learning the fiddle, after a detour with the concertina. When we suggested that the concertina might have been a 'gateway instrument' to the fiddle, in the same way that the evil weed is supposedly a gateway to other illicit substances, Johnny's eye's lit up.

He leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone: 'You know what the fiddle is the gateway to, don't you?' We shook our head. Then his eyes got really wild, and he practically shouted the answer to his own question: 'It's the gateway to *HELL*!'

And then both of us dissolved into laughter.

Magpie saw Johnny a few more times afterwards, the last time about nine months ago, over some whiskies in a Portland bar. When we finished our drinks, Johnny went to join the session going on, even though he'd forgotten to bring his own fiddle. He asked the loan of one from another fiddler, and then sat down and played the most stunningly beautiful version of the tune 'Hector the Hero' that we've ever heard.

It's hard to believe he's gone.


The obituary in The Scotsman is here. Another one, from Wednesday's New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times, is here. The same paper also has this remembrance.

A 1993 interview with Johnny Cunningham is here. All Music Guide has a somewhat dated bio and discography here.

Johnny Cunningham's website is worth visiting just for the photo on the opening page.

The Kennedy Center for the Arts has several concerts featuring Johnny Cunningham with his frequent musical partner Susan McKeown and with his brother Phil. You can find links to the streaming video here.

| | Posted by Magpie at 10:24 PM | Get permalink




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