[NOTE: The freakish pre-winter snowstorm of this past weekend shut down the power, heat, and computer in my Hudson Valley home in New York, and caused me to relocate to precipitation-light southern New Jersey in a hurry and thus to miss my last two guest blogger entries for the week of October 23-29. So here’s the first of the last two blog entries that I was working on. I’ll post the other soon. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. — Earle Hitchner]
Literarily and musically, I tend to swim more in the runnels than in the mainstream. As poet Philip Larkin once admitted, “I feel very much the need to be on the periphery of things.”
My private literary pantheon includes Bernard MacLaverty (especially his short-story collection A Time to Dance and his novels Lamb and Cal, which were made into excellent movies), Richard Yates (especially his short-story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love, and his novels A Good School, The Easter Parade, and Revolutionary Road, despite its disappointing filmization), Andre Dubus (notably his novella Voices from the Moon and his short-story collection Separate Flights, containing “The Doctor,” a genre masterpiece), and poets Tim Dlugos (his long poem “G-9,” first published in The Paris Review and now in A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, is unforgettable), Piet Hein, Ciaran Carson (his poem “The Tag” in his collection Until Before After is monumental in its brevity), John Montague, Terence Winch, Louis De Paor, Philip Schultz (his poem “Failure” in his book of the same title is breathtaking), Wendy Cope (her verse is still not well known stateside), Dana Gioia (subject of my doctoral dissertation), and Charles Causley.
My private musical pantheon is far harder to hint at here. But I am an ardent fan of jazz, owning 23 albums by pianist Steve Kuhn, whose music I cannot get enough of, and at least 20 albums featuring one of my musical heroes, the saxophone colossus himself, Sonny Rollins. I am also an admirer of classical, blues, R&B, soul, Cajun, zydeco, old-timey, bluegrass, and select rock, pop, and country. Among musicians I have interviewed are Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Peter Rowan, Joshua Redman, Alison Brown, Don Braden, Mark O'Connor, Natalie Merchant, and Sonny Rollins. And Irish traditional music, which I’ve been formally writing about since 1978, remains my fiercest passion.
But I also relish other Celtic traditional music, including Scottish traditional music from what I regard as its last efflorescence in Scotland: the 1970s and 1980s. Groups such as Ossian (especially with Tony Cuffe as member), Silly Wizard, Kentigern (fine band too often overlooked), Alba, Tannahill Weavers (only with highland piper Alan MacLeod as member), Jock Tamson’s Bairns (first two albums only), the Fisher Family (Archie, Ray, and Cilla), and the delectably difficult-to-define Easy Club, and soloists such as Dick Gaughan, Dougie MacLean, Jean Redpath, Sheena Wellington, Hamish Moore, and Aly Bain (specifically Shetland), all have given me ample, enduring enjoyment.
A founding member of Silly Wizard, Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003) appears on all the band’s best albums, including the best of their best, So Many Partings in 1979. Track 5, “Donald McGillavry / O’Neill’s Cavalry March,” still gives me a head-to-toe thrill, especially the second tune powered by the Cunningham brothers, Johnny on fiddle and Phil on piano accordion.
This December 15 will mark the eighth anniversary of Johnny Cunningham’s death. A heart attack claimed him at age 46 in New York City. But I still take solace in an inscription he had on the back of his fiddle. The words appeared near the image of a tree, ostensibly the one from which the wood for his fiddle was taken: “In life I was mute, but in death I sing.”
The music and personality of Johnny Cunningham still sing in me. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Shortly after his death, I wrote two articles about him for the Irish Echo newspaper. Here, I’ve tweaked or truncated the article conveying my reminiscences about him and tucked in a few others.
I know what you’re thinking: Why not wait until December 15 to post this blog entry? My answer is: Johnny, who marched to a different bodhran beater, would not have minded, so why should I? Besides, I was rereading some verse by William Blake and Robert Burns yesterday, and it restirred memories of Johnny, who loved the work of both. I guess you could say this blog entry represents Johnny on the spot.
Here’s my substantially revamped Irish Echo piece:
At a concert sponsored by New York’s World Music Institute at Symphony Space, Scottish fiddler extraordinaire Johnny Cunningham walked alone onto the stage, sat down in a chair, and said to the audience, “I thought I’d begin by reading some poetry of Robert Burns.” He then pulled out a paperback copy of the verse of Scotland’s greatest bard, opened its pages, and started to read—in utter silence. After a couple of minutes of silent reading and page turning, with the crowd’s laughter rising, Johnny closed the book, looked up, said “Right,” and began playing the fiddle.
No words of mine can do justice to his, so I’ll let some of Johnny Cunningham’s own words convey his unique humor and spirit.
In 1998, Johnny’s friend Tony McManus, a brilliant Scottish guitarist, released a solo album entitled Pourquois Quebec. Johnny, with an impish glint in his eye, referred to it as “Pourquois Bother.”
Several years ago at the Turning Point, a club in Piermont, New York, Johnny and button accordionist Joe Derrane gave their only concert as a duo. Introducing Johnny, who performed first, I summarized some of his talents, including that of raconteur. When Johnny took the stage, he feigned confusion: “Raconteur? What’s that? Some sort of gardening implement?”
His reality-tilting quips, anecdotes, and stories had the audience in stitches. "Joe and I are on an East Coast tour together," he said. "This is our only gig. That's because we're old now. We're calling this the 'Born to Be Mild' tour."
Then Johnny spoke about the traditional tunes he was going to play: "They all sound the same because, in fact, they're all the same tune."
In describing his grandmother in Scotland, Johnny mentioned how she suddenly adopted a more healthful approach to life after reading a magazine article about it. "My granny is 93 this year," he said, "and she cut back on her smoking at age 75, going from three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day to one pack of filtered cigarettes. She also read that walking is good for you, so since age 75 she's been walking 6 to 9 miles a day." After a pause, he added, "Of course, we don't know where the hell she is now." Another pause. "She could be here."
London-born, Sligo-style fiddler Kevin Burke, whom Johnny once introduced on stage as “the Icelandic fiddler Kevin Bjork,” also brought up Johnny Cunningham's wit. "He said part of his heritage was Irish and the other part was Scottish, so half of him wanted a drink and the other half didn't want to pay for it," Burke recounted with a laugh from his home in Portland, Oregon. Over the past decade, Burke toured and recorded three albums with Johnny Cunningham and Christian Lemaitre as the Celtic Fiddle Festival, who represented the Irish, Scottish, and Breton traditions in fiddling. "Johnny and I had talked about doing a tour together as far back as 1981-82," Burke said. "At first, we thought it should be him, me, and Bob Marley's Wailers. That idea cropped up well after midnight and a few pints."
The lineup of Cunningham, Burke, and Lemaitre, with backing guitarist John McGann, toured initially in 1992. "Halfway through the first tour, the second tour was almost completely booked," Kevin said. "We had no idea that it was going to maintain for this long. I think people were interested in hearing the fiddle on its own, the way it used to be heard, apart from folk groups like Johnny's Silly Wizard and the Bothy Band I played with. Each of us gave our own separate tradition an unadorned, direct statement in concert. It was the easiest setup I ever worked with, and one of the most effective."
When asked about Johnny Cunningham's technique as a fiddler, Burke responded with unstinting praise. "He used to play these mad, fast, flying sets of reels, and at the drop of a hat, he'd turn around and play the most sensitive slow air that would produce a teary eye even in a wizened old hack like myself."
Burke also cited Johnny Cunningham's naturalness in performance. "Johnny's demeanor and stagecraft were fantastic," he said. "Even if he was not feeling well or in a bad humor, as soon as he set foot on stage, he wasn't going to let anyone down. He really understood the psyche of an audience."
Flute and tin whistle player Joanie Madden, leader of Cherish the Ladies, remembered how effective Johnny was as a producer of the band's Out and About and New Day Dawning albums. "He got the most out of musicians by creating an environment where the hard work and pressure of the studio became something you looked forward to because everything about it was fun," she said from the road with CTL. "Laughter began the minute he walked through the door. It was contagious and impossible to ignore."
Button accordionist John Whelan also cited Johnny's relaxed, reassuring presence in the recording studio. "He was a guest on my Celtic Crossroads album and was superb to work with," Whelan recalled from his home in Milford, Conn. "Johnny was so instinctive and supportive. He was producing a Solas album downstairs and came upstairs to work on two tracks of my album."
Johnny Cunningham read a book or two a day. "It's how he relaxed and got away from everything," Trisha McCormick, his life partner, said from the lower Manhattan apartment they shared. "He loved books, and it goes along with his storytelling and feeds his own stories." Cooking and fishing, especially on small commercial boats off the coast of his adopted hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, were other pursuits that gave him pleasure and peace.
He was also an effortless master at the oft-neglected art of conversation, whether in his favorite Manhattan pub, 11th Street Bar, or elsewhere, and he relished movies and writing.
"Johnny started two short stories that I have," Trisha said, "and wrote little rhymes and poetry. We wrote a screenplay together, Seeds of Crime, a comedy about corruption in the food industry."
She also mentioned Johnny's unusual relationship with automobiles, many of which were in continual need of repair. "We drove up to New Bedford one Christmas, and we didn't have any heat in the car," she recalled. "The antifreeze was spitting through the air-conditioner ducts, so we had to put plastic around our faces to protect us as the whole interior of the car was being coated with antifreeze for three and a half hours. But Johnny made it into something that was a fun adventure. He would make the most ordinary things magical."
THE JOHNNY I KNEW
I met Johnny Cunningham not long after he emigrated from Scotland to America in 1981. An early connection came at a solo concert he gave at the old Towne Crier Cafe in Beekman, New York. Inside a cracker-barrel-style, L-shaped room in a wooden building that dated back to the Revolutionary War, he mesmerized the audience with blazing dance tunes, poignant airs, and a huge helping of hilarity. I remember he stayed afterward to socialize, then climbed into his car and headed back to Sumneytown, Pennsylvania, where he was living then.
Years later, after a Silly Wizard concert in New Jersey, Johnny stayed in my apartment, and I noticed a paperback of William Blake's poetry in his fiddle case. We spent a good portion of the night and early morning talking about Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Though he left school prematurely, Johnny Cunningham was an autodidact of the first order and had one of the most astute, acquisitive, creative minds I've ever encountered.
He was an accomplished fencer in Scotland and taught his younger brother, Phil, some rudiments of the sport. As a schoolboy in Scotland, Johnny was part of a group called Home Brew, and in Pennsylvania he played for a time with a country band but left when they started covering Beach Boys' songs. Also less-known about him was a traffic accident in London that crushed the bones in his feet and left him with a limp and nerve pain—sometimes pronounced, sometimes slight—the rest of his life.
Johnny Cunningham enjoyed choral music, John Coltrane's recordings, Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts' The Liffey Banks album, and Foreigner's pop hit "I Want to Know What Love Is," which he confessed once brought him to tears in the car. He had the ability to slip beneath the wrapper of cliché to see or feel whatever truth of experience was there to begin with.
Besides fiddle, Johnny could play piano and guitar, and at an after-concert party for the quartet Relativity (Johnny and Phil Cunningham, and Triona and Micheal O Domhnaill) in Morristown, New Jersey, he stunned me with his fine guitar accompaniment for Triona Ni Dhomhnaill as she sang Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather."
The musical legacy of Johnny Cunningham is assured through Relativity, Celtic Fiddle Festival, Nightnoise, Raindogs, Mabou Mines's Peter & Wendy, two solo albums and one duet recording with brother Phil, and Silly Wizard, a Scottish traditional band without peer in its combination of music and mirth.
Most professional musicians are adept at self-expression. Far fewer are adept at communicating with an audience. Johnny Cunningham was a genius at both. He may have struggled with his health and finances, but he never struggled with the music, stories, and attention he lavished on people.
"A heart is to be spent," wrote poet Stephen Dunn. Johnny Cunningham did that, willingly and freely.
I’ll conclude with this toast raised by Johnny to a friend. It speaks volumes about the value he placed on companionship, culture, and the rest of life:
“Here’s to creativity and to sacrifice. Here’s to support and forward thinking. Here’s to truth in the midst of falseness, and exploration in the face of the obvious. Here’s to belief and trust in the process. Here’s to strength under duress. Here’s to those who give. Here’s to those who use the gift. Here’s to all who benefit from it.”
On December 15, 2011, I’ll be playing Johnny Cunningham’s music for sure. I’m playing it now as I write these words. From Fair Warning, his second solo album, the Scottish slow air “Archibald McDonald of Keppoch” is in the background. Kevin Burke is right: There’s something transcendent about Johnny’s playing of slow airs.
Frater, ave atque vale.
To see and hear Johnny Cunningham performing on fiddle, check out this nearly seven-minute video of him with brother Phil from a Silly Wizard concert on October 16, 1986: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1gRDQEIiSM
by Philip Schultz
To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that’s why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read a stock eulogy
about a man who didn’t belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son
and wife of the dead man
being shamed by each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy.
An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father’s business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand. Indeed,
my father was comical.
His watches pinched, he tripped
on his pant cuffs and snored
loudly in movies, where
his weariness overcame him
finally. He didn’t believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.
by Ciaran Carson
round your wrist
bore a number
two weeks after
two stone less
the day you
came home it
no need to snip
by Dana Gioia
[from his upcoming new book of verse, Pity the Beautiful, to be published by Graywolf Press]
He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware,
And someone else was walking next to him,
First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
They were good company—generous, kind,
But equally bewildered to be there.
He noticed then that no one chose the way—
All seemed to drift by some collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?