Johnny Cunningham : Defining Wizardry

Defining Wizardry

by Laurie Devine,
Dirty Linen DL49, July 1993

Certain human beings are imbued with an obscure character trait, some call charisma.

When they enter a room where a party is being held, a brief moment of silence transpires--as if people are checking them out. In a pub or a restaurant, chairs of patrons are unknowingly oriented toward them, whilst the occupants evaluate the individual. It may be part of our human pecking order from primal days. It cannot be defined.

On a sodden night last February, the fearsome fiddler from Silly Wizard, Relativity, Raindogs and Nightnoise--Johnny Cunningham--arrived at the Tucson Airport. He was scheduled to perform for the North American Folk Alliance.

The Folk Alliance, by way of explanation, is an auspicious gathering of most agents, promoters, record companies and festival organizers in North America. Strong, talented men have trembled in anticipation for performing at the event. Johnny was undaunted.

But the curious spectators in the Tucson Airport sensed something different--those subtle signs above. Heads indeed turned quietly. Quizzical eyes looked at him, as if he surely must be someone, but the viewer wasn't sure exactly who.

Part of this is undoubtedly that Johnny doesn't exactly look like everyone else. His hair sort of flows in a wild, appropriately wizardly fashion. He's invariably attired in black-- usually leather or silk. And he now sports on his right arm a blazing red tattoo from the Book of Kells.

But the greater effect is the man himself. He has seized this moment and is obsessed with living it. He is altogether too happy to let the rest of us join him, if we choose. He doesn't much care if we choose not to.

It was an eerie recreation of an earlier experience. Once before heads had turned like this, and vacant eyes had been held fast, and that source of that inspiration had been younger brother, Silly Wizard accordionist, Phil Cunningham, that time at the Phoenix airport.

The questions had to be what happened in the Cunningham home, what kind of childhood was this that created these two wild, passionately alive brothers?

Johnny Cunningham, the eldest of three children, never exactly fit the mold of the proper young Scottish lad. From birth he was bright, inquisitive, nonconforming, but detached-- when convenient. He preferred doing things to just learning them.

The Cunningham home, by all accounts, was a hotbed of activity, humor and wit. Relatives wandered through apparently at will, and the family was always engaged in some community activity. There was a fascination with music, which formed the centerpiece to all of these activities. Early on both boys were given instruments.

"Phil and I both started playing the harmonica when I was 5 and he was 3. We played in the Green Lee Old Age Pensioner Harmonica Band. It was Phil and me, and a bunch of old guys in their 70's and 80's. Eventually Phil started playing a little melodeon thing which was kind of push- pull, then moved on to piano accordion. They tried me on the accordion, but I was completely useless. Then my mother made me take piano lessons. I couldn't get that together either."

In virtual desperation, then, his grandmother one day around his 8th birthday, gave him an old fiddle. "For some reason, the first day I had it, I was knocking tunes out of it. It was just right."

If Johnny's childhood was a fertile one, it was brief. By 14, he had made the decision to leave home and enter the cruel world. He was not altogether sure what he would do, just that he would leave.

School had never proven much of a challenge. No careers besides music held much fascination. As always, Johnny was in pursuit of more stimulation.

"My father said something important to me when I told him I was leaving home (to play music.) 'In my life, I didn't get to do a lot of things that I wanted to do because of responsibilities. If you're going to do this, just do it properly.' That just stuck in my mind. If it was one of these things where (in the beginning) it was cold, we had no money, it wasn't like, 'Let's give this up and run home.' I never really went back and spent time with my parents until I was 18 or 19. They were willing to help me whenever I needed it, and they did. But it wasn't a factor in what I was doing. I was just doing what my Dad had told me....I reckon that I did, and continue to try to do that."

That Johnny Cunningham did this was, perhaps, not so much because he wanted to run away from home, as that he wanted to run toward a new life. In some ways this was an exceptionally mature position for a 14 year old.

The youth, in any event, found himself settled in various flats in Edinburgh: Squalor mightbe a more accurate description. He found various gigs and drifted through the lot, until being observed one night by Gordon Jones and Bob Thomas.

Jones and Thomas were the house organizers for the Triangle Folk Club in Edinburgh. They had always visualized a new dimension for folk music. That visualization eventually became Silly Wizard.

They recognized in young Johnny Cunningham what many who saw him at that time observed: His music was powerful, his style traditional yet divergent, and a wild spirit possessed his eyes and his playing. They invited him to join them for sets at the Triangle.

Johnny was certainly steeped in the tradition of Scottish music, but he was far from committed to it. That the fiddle in many ways is constrained to traditional tunes did not concern him. He would play anything, in a way that he found interesting.

"When I was about 12, we'd get together with a few friends. We played all the time. We were experimenting with electronics and we had these old radio speakers which we reversed the polarity and taped to the back of our fiddles (taking all the varnish off). We all plugged into one large Marshall amp for a bass guitar. We really liked the JSD Band at that time. It was great to hear the traditional music we were brought up with played in a different setting."

And so the music was already undergoing a change in Johnny Cunningham's mind--one which paralleled the change in Gordon Jones' and Bob Thomas' minds.

Johnny moved in with the group which was eventually to become known as Silly Wizard at 69 Broughton Street. "It was a hub of creativity, but there was no comfort there. Life was indescribable--no money, no bathroom, communal baths which we could afford once a week, where we would share one bar of lye soap...One winter we used to cook things like black pudding and rice. We burnt the floorboards for heat, and eventually had to walk on the beams because there was nothing left. We lived there until we got offered this residency in Liverpool, and fled (Edinburgh) in the middle of the night, leaving all the bills behind, getting away..."

Misconceptions abound about the Wizard's Liverpool period--that they had finally earned recognition,were being fostered in a plush residency. Reality is that life didn't improve much for them.

"We used to do anything we possibly could to make money. We used to busk in Liverpool...One time Shay Black found me and Phil busking, pathetically thin, and took us home and fed us." The Black brothers, thus were introduced to the Cunninghams and two sets of the Celtic world's most prominent musical siblings connected on a Liverpool street. "We jammed, we ate and we shared some drink." By this simple act of mercy, some hard times were briefly passed.

"In Liverpool, sometimes we lived in the pitch dark because we didn't have any money to put in the electric meters."

"We went back to Edinburgh when they changed to 24 hour drinking laws in Scotland. The next day we did the same thing out of Liverpool that we had done the previous year from Edinburgh--just a moonlight out of the apartment. And we came back."

During this time, Phil Cunningham was following behind his older brother, playing sometimes with the Wizard, but demonstrating a bit more academic proclivity. He hung in until 16, and "school leaving," whereupon the band picked him up and whisked him off. Everyone knew it would happen. No one was surprised.

Johnny and Phil brought into the instrumental heart of Silly Wizard what one reviewer described as one of the most "empowered combinations in musical history."

Not all musicians like their style. Some consider it ostentatious, too flamboyant. No onecan fiddle faster than Johnny Cunningham, and when Phil's fingers fly across the keys, they often truly blur to one's vision.

Audiences would audibly gasp, then breathe, then break out in spontaneous applause.

After some of these duel/dual sets by the brotheres, Andy Stewart would sidle back onto the stage, to offer the tongue-in-cheek comment, "That's nothing. When they play really fast, only dogs can hear them."

To Wizard and Cunningham followers, this demonstration of small motor coordination is more than offset by sensitive slow reels and tunes. Early in the Wizard's evolution they learned to soften their sound with the arrangements of sensitive ballads which had to be integrated from the repertoire and pen of Andy Stewart.

"We were interested in the slower ballads, as well as the faster tunes. It wasn't something we began for audience reaction--it was what made us feel good as a band. We took our music seriously, but we didn't take the situation seriously. I think that showed to the audience. We weren't trying to share a cultural experience. We were actually trying to communicate some of our feelings."

At the time Silly Wizard first appeared, Scotland was virtually devoid of traditional or revival bands. Where, then, did they get their inspiration?

"We were young enough so that we were just using whatever was in our heads. We didn't really listen to anyone else around, because there wasn't a lot to listen to at that time. The Boys of the Lough were around, the Whistlebinkies, but they were more traditional. We just wanted to make music that we were all happy with. It was very collaborative. We would not do songs or tunes that any member of the band didn't like. We were always very honest in what we did, which is one of the reasons I think it worked."

Perhaps then what characterized Silly Wizard's moment and uniqueness was not what Gordon Jones and Andy Stewart had believed, an extraordinary devotion to professionalism and sound mastery. These were important, but what led them to work at all was here. It was the honesty, the barren revelation of their own hearts.

As the Wizard grew, and became more famous, Johnny Cunningham grew up. In many ways Johnny was the microcosm of the band. It is easy to visualize the youthful Johnny Cunningham in the early caricature of the Wizard--the dancing, fiddle-playing, carefree Merlin-esque image.

Times changed. In the early 80's Johnny became anxious for more. He moved to America, experimented with different music and ideas. He left the Wizard for a while, and the band alternately performed with Dougie MacLean as fiddler, or (on the 1984 tour) no fiddler at all. Eventually he returned to the fold, only to see the band survive its final tour in America in 1988.

Johnny does not look back at it often anymore. It's been five years--a lifetime with his level of activity. Concurrently with the Wizard's demise, he was performing extensively with Relativity--a virtual supergroup comprised of himself, Phil and Bothy Band siblings Triona ni Dhomnhaill and Micheal O'Domhnaill. Significantly Johnny's performance direction in 1993 has reunited him with the Irish siblings in the New Age band Nightnoise.

Anyone who knows John and Phil Cunningham cannot escape both the contradictions and the similarities. If they sometimes appear to detest the comparisons, there still is clearly a great deal of respect and deference between them. They have shared more than the normal bonds of brotherhood through their musical experiences.

Johnny once retold his grandmother's warnings, "Life is too short. Why spend it sleeping? You're going to spend an awful lot of time sleeping..." A perpetual insomniac (members of the Wizard refused to room with him), Johnny seldom wastes time in that manner.

Phil Cunningham is equally famous for his passions and interests-- billiards, horseback riding, roping, and a million other hobbies and ideas. They add a dimension to his life, and if some of short lived, this freneticism of activity seems to contribute to his character.

Johnny is more subtle. A voracious reader, his passions always seem to ultimately lead back to the music.

"Music is the central part of my life. I'm really interested in poetry, the spoken word. That's a part of the Celtic culture which has been sadly ignored. All the songs are, after all, is spoken words with great music."

"I'm ionterested in anything that makes me feel good. I'm interested in anything I have a gut reaction to, so I'm interested in poetry, a lot of different kind of film. Because anything that enhances my existence, I like. And there is no excuse for boredom. I can read and listen to music. How could I ever be bored?"

In Scotland, Phil Cunningham is generally regarded as one of the most respected producers of traditional, or related, recordings. His career in production these days has rendered his actual performances increasingly rare.

Johnny has ventured into the production realm more recently. The first two years after the Wizard's disintegration were devoted to Boston-based rock band, Raindogs. He no longer tours with that band, though he does still contribute to their recordings.

Certainly his contemporary projects have led more to the creation of music. Much of the last year has been devoted to writing the score for a scheduled Lincoln Center, adult- oriented version of Peter Pan, a tribute with a Scottish bias.

His production, principally for Green Linnet Records, is distinctly different from Phil's. While a Phil Cunningham recording can be recognized for its characteristic sound, virtually an earmark, they will be uniformly well-produced, clean and professional. Odds are, if you like Phil's work, you will like all of the recordings he produces.

Johnny has a more detached approach and has produced artists as varied as Brooks Williams, Bill Morrissey, Fred Small and Pendragon. Johnny's philosophy is to believe in the artists with whom he works, and to allow them to develop--to live or die with--their own ideas. He cuts them clean, contributes his input and professionalism, and allows them to see life as they are.

While Johnny Cunningham can derive pleasure from these endeavors, his feedback it seems, must ultimately come from an audience. He appears constantly--solo, in combination with Boston area musicians, on tour with Kevin Burke & Christian LeMaitre as The Celtic Fiddle Festival, Phil's annual Hogmanay show for BBC Scotland, and now with Nightnoise.

Beginning in October, there will be six months of international travel and performances all across America. A new album will be released and another recorded with a top Japanese singer. If New Age music is a new experience for Johnny, then perhaps Johnny is also a new experience for New Age music. He may burst the bubble of tranquility to which those audiences are accustomed.

"A lot of times I'll do and say things to an audience which are intentionally meant to aggravate or provoke thought. I don't care how an audience reacts as long as they react. I'm pretty much the same on stage as I am off of it. One of the things I'd like to do in my life is write a piece of music that I experience and the audience experiences the same way the first time they listen to it. Sometimes I go out and I think, this audience--there are people getting ready to come out and see me. It's the focus of their day, wheras for me it's just another day. At the end of the night they've had what they came for, and I'm left thinking to myself, "Now what do I do?' In a way, I'm very jealous of the audience, because they get something out of my music that I can never ever have."

"I get some things. I get a lot, but I'm not sure sometimes what it is. I think sometimes audiences have a talent, for listening, and sometimes my involvement with the art, I can't listen. I analyze it. It's like setting the alarm for the morning and not being able to sleep waiting for it to go off."

In another of Andy Stewart's onstage allusions, he used to describe Johnny's precarious existence. "Have you ever been rocking on your chair, when it goes back just a bit too much? You hover there, on the brink, wondering if you'll fall forward, or fall backward to your doom?" For dramatic clarity, he would pause. "Do you know that feeling? That's how Johnny feels all the time." In its humor, there is much truth.

"I don't know...Maybe I'm having (the best times). For all my complaints about my existence, when I look at what I get to do for a living, 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."

All of us draw from those sources which give meaning to our lives. All of us return them to the world in some way. It is the rare human beings like Johnny Cunningham, the ones who have learned (or maybe have an instinct for) a life so raw and real, that the rest of us try to sustain ourselves from it.

That is why Johnny Cunningham causes people's heads to turn. That is why like the best among us, the music and the man lead us to simple moments of silence.


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