Founding member of the band Silly Wizard, the brilliant Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham died in December 2003. He was very dear to many listeners to The Thistle & Shamrock and we invited them to share their memories of this influential performer of Celtic music and lovely, funny man.
Here are the three best letters we received:
From Karin Lea, a Pig's Tale
When Johnny first came to the United States in 1980, he was somewhat bereft without his brother, Phil, and other Silly Wizard compadres. However, he did get a chance to meet a group of musicians called the Johnston Brothers, who were country-western oriented, and they all immediately hit it off, each finding the other's music completely enticing.
Johnny began sitting in with them frequently. One Saturday night, they were playing at Toland's Tavern –- occasionally called "Toland's Toilet" thanks to the nature of the clientele. Admittedly, I was among the riffraff who liked to have a wild Saturday night out with lots of dancing and drinking. I sat talking with friends and we were discussing in great detail what our favorite breed of dog was -– mine being the always clever Scottish border collie.
Johnny joined us at the table and, as soon as he realized the nature of the conversation, immediately dove in and said all these breeds were fine, if one wanted to merely limit one's choice to dogs, but the pet he would most like to own, hands down, would be a pig.
He was so proud of himself for throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the conversation, which pretty much came to a halt after his statement. Unbeknownst to Johnny or me, however, the mother of the guy who was sitting at the table with us actually raised pigs. The next morning, Sunday, there was a knock at the front door and Johnny drowsily made his way to the door, only to find a good-sized cardboard box that was tied tightly with string, but was rocking vigorously from side to side. He was mystified, but intrigued, and tiptoed outside cautiously and opened the box.
Out popped a madly energetic little piglet that began racing all over the yard, causing Johnny to have to run after it to catch it. His efforts to capture the piglet were helped -- or hindered, depending on your perspective -– by the aforementioned border collie who figured if he couldn't find a sheep to herd, at the least he could have some entertainment with Johnny and a piglet.
The "perpetrators" of this piglet gift then emerged from the bushes, laughing hysterically of course. The piglet was captured and Johnny promptly named him Hamish. Hamish spent his first night as Johnny's pal in a resurrected baby's playpen, as it was Sunday and no stores were open for Johnny to get the materials to make a real pigpen. They remained quite attached right up to the point Hamish actually made the transition to "ham," at which point Johnny seemed to not have the sense of connection with Hamish that he had previously.
However, Hamish remained in Johnny's creative soul, if not his stomach, and Johnny eventually immortalized Hamish with a little sculpture, which is attached with this e-mail. I like to think that Johnny and Hamish are frolicking together, even as I write.
I'm hoping Hamish has forgiven Johnny his trespasses.
From Bob Ford of The Rolling Scones
My name is Bob Ford and I am a folk musician in the Dayton Ohio area. One night as my friend Chris and I were playing a gig at the Dublin Pub in Dayton, we were taking a break when a long haired, bearded fellow walks in the door. Chris looks up and shouts, "Hello Johnny!" Coming thru the door was Johnny Cunningham. He was in town for a show at the Victoria Theatre the next evening.
We had advertised ourselves that night as "The Rolling Scones". Reading the local paper in his hotel room, Johnny saw the name, got curious and came to check us out. Chris asked if he would like to play with us. Johnny said his fiddle was back in the hotel room. Chris volunteered to drive him back to get it and off they went. The rest of the night we jammed and drank with Johnny. We asked if he wanted to play his stuff, but he said no, he preferred to jam with us.
We played our mix of Celtic and pop rock tunes including James Taylor, Eagles and such. Johnny told us he was working on a special project out soon with James Taylor. It was a fabulous evening and one we will never forget: the night Johnny Cunningham played with the Rolling Scones!
From Bea Orr, of the Salieri Party
I have so may fond memories of Johnny. When he first came to this country and during the time he lived in Sumneytown, Penn., he was a great friend and a source of much joy.
When we would go out for breakfast after a performance, Johnny was at his most devilish. He would give the hostess some famous but obscure name, such as William Wallace (before Braveheart made the name so recognizable), Salieri, etc. Then he would just crack up when the loudspeaker would announce, "Salieri party of 6 your table is ready."
I remember the time when Johnny was performing to a SRO crowd of absolutely adoring fans. The adulation in the audience was so thick, it was almost unbelievable. Johnny couldn't even scratch his nose without eliciting screams. One of the people in our group happened to be the person who cleaned the house weekly for the Cunninghams. At one point she turned to a screaming group near us and said loudly, "I don't know what all this fuss is about, I see Johnny in his pajamas every week". You can only imagine the reaction of those around us. When Johnny heard this, he said it was the best PR he had ever had. I miss him.
For more information on Johnny Cunningham, visit www.johnnycunningham.com.