This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2004/2005 issue
Within the last year our great, sprawling Celtic musical family lost one of our most dearly beloved brothers, Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham. Johnny died far too young, but in a career spanning thirty years, he left a stamp on Celtic music that will be felt for decades.
I first encountered Johnny on the touring circuit over 25 years ago and owe much of the Scottish bits of my style to what I learned from him, both through playing together and endless woodshedding of his recordings. Johnny first made his mark (with younger brother Phil on accordion) playing in the breakthrough Scots Celto-Rock band Silly Wizard. But his solo work after Silly Wizard, including his recent Celtic Fiddle Summit recordings with Kevin Burke, stands as some of the most exciting Celtic music of his generation. The title track alone from his album “Fair Warning” is enough to guarantee him a star on the Celtic Walk of Fame.
What marked Johnny’s playing for me was not the wicked speeds he was capable of or the accuracy of his ornaments. It was the grin that suffused his music. He played with such an innate sense of playfulness that you couldn’t help but grin along with him all the way. One of my favorite evenings with Johnny was a little show that was cobbled together at San Francisco’s long-vanished Mr. Hyde’s about 20 years ago, featuring Johnny with Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. I was included as second fiddle, slipstreaming along behind the Big Boys as best I could. It took me a week to stop grinning after that night.
Darol and Mike played mandocello and mandolin, respectively, most of the time, though by virtue of being Darol and Mike they tossed several instruments back and forth with masterful recklessness. Johnny stuck to his fiddle. I stuck to Johnny.
Nothing was planned. We decided what to play on the fly and then launched off into the unknown. What I quickly realized was that Johnny was as adept at variations and improvisation as were Darol and Mike, though using different musical vocabularies and realms of exploration. And the fun all three exuded through it all conquered my terror, allowing me to at least ride along with them, even though I never occupied the driver’s seat.
Johnny started the evening solo, playing some ancient airs and helpfully translating the Scots Gaelic names into English. He then proceeded to translate all the subsequent English tune names in a scholarly deadpan, introducing “Banish Misfortune” as “Please Go Away, Bad Luck” and “Gravel Walks” as “The Path That Goes Up to Somebody’s House.” These two tunes were then shredded in a 20-minute medley that got to the Asteroid Belt before turning for home.
I retain a vague memory of playing the 32-bar, D-minor Irish reel “Julia Delaney” medleyed with a 16-bar American tune in A-minor, toggling back and forth between the two, going Coltrane on both of them, and finally playing them simultaneously to shrieks of either pain or appreciation from the crowd. Nothing was sacred and everything was up for grabs.
So where is all this reminiscence leading? Other than taking a minute to remember a good friend and a fabulous teacher, I thought I’d share a little of Johnny’s variation panache with you all. If it leaves you grinning, so much the better.
In my last column I introduced you to the chromatic variation ideas of Gerry O’Connor. Here in this example, you have a little of how Johnny Cunningham approached “The Mason’s Apron,” a hoary chestnut from the common pub repertoire, but a tune that offers many ways to keep things interesting. Johnny tended to stick more within the established mode of a tune than Gerry does, though he wasn’t averse to short chromatic bursts, as you’ll see.
I’ve transcribed “The Mason’s Apron” here first in a simplified setting, pretty close to the way you’re likely to hear it in the sessions. Then off we go into variations (grins not indicated). I’ve collapsed the variations a little. Johnny would usually repeat each A and B part shown here with tiny alterations before moving on to the next variant thought, rather than whip right from one to the next. I always found this to be an honorable way to weave a story using the tune shapes the listener had already been able to absorb. So really, you have an extra time through the tune here if you care to play it that way.
Johnny played some astonishing spiccatto (controlled bow skipping) variants that, alas, don’t translate well to mando. But the variants included here will give you a nice jumping-off point to try some additional explorations of your own. And it’s nice to remember how Johnny Cunningham’s joyous abandon in his Celtic tune arranging inspired so many of us to take chances and stretch these great tunes a little farther than we’d previously dared.
Johnny will never be far from any session I play in. There’s a never-ending supply of grins I will always thank him for.