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A Good Year for Black Roses


Damn this year and its black coven bubbling and troubling our musical lives these 12 months. What thing this way comes so wicked that wise and true folk, Johnny and June Cash, Warren Zevon, Gary Stewart, Wesley Willis, men and women whose lives have seen immeasurable sadness coupled with overwhelming joy, folk such as this should flee for other shores?


I recall waking up one morning to a motel alarm-clock radio’s on-the-hour headline report, a report which began “Francis Albert Sinatra …” By “Albert,” it was clear that a momentous moment had passed in music history. This past week, fiddler Johnny Cunningham would receive no headline report, no prime-time special, no Behind the Music. Yet somehow his passing at age 46, on Dec. 15, of a sudden heart attack seems just as profound, and certainly as sad. Beginning in the ’70s, with his brother Phil in Silly Wizard, Cunningham’s role in the rebirth of traditional Scottish music -- and in the blurring of lines between a rock star’s dedication to worldly life and the folkie’s spiritual belief in something larger -- is inestimable. With the Wizard, with the Celtic Fiddle Festival, with Relativity, and with innumerous side and solo projects -- even a stint working with punk band Dropkick Murphys -- Cunningham provided a link of authenticity to traditional music, as well as a longing to take the “rules” of the tradition more as “guidelines.” And he did it all with smile on face and glass in hand.


On the radio promoting his Celtic Fiddle Festival tour with Irishman Kevin Burke and Breton fiddler Christian Lemaître, Cunningham and co. were asked to say what they’d had for breakfast, as a sound check. Each fiddler’s statement amounted to a cultural and personal statement of purpose: Lemaître’s croissant, Burke’s bacon and eggs, and Cunningham’s witty-but-true “a can of Coke and two cigarettes.” Cunningham’s countryman, film director Danny Boyle, once said, “No self-respecting Scotsman would ever purposefully ingest Vitamin C,” and Johnny Cunningham seems to have played the part to the hilt -- to the end.


This past weekend, by chance, I heard a man sing Silly Wizard’s “The Ramblin’ Rover” in a bar. (Silly Wizard is “A name,” I always apologize to uninitiated friends, “that does no justice to their talents.”) I was drinking Bowmore -- probably the wrong choice, as the smoky peat and self-satisfied grin of Islay might seem too content in the moment for Johnny Cunningham’s inestimable life force. No, Johnny, I bet, would’ve been more onto Highland Park, with its Orcadian hints of low-hanging clouds and midnight sun. Or Jameson, the water of long hot nights of seisun and women. Or Jack Daniels, the official beverage of Cunningham’s two beloved adopted homes: America and rock ’n’ roll.


“The Ramblin’ Rover,” as it does anyone, made me think of the Celt’s facility for travel, the ability to break camp at a moment’s notice in favor of some ancient hereditary need for an unknown other. For that reason, I haven’t quite counted out Johnny Cunningham yet. Sure, he may be dead. But the Celts never had much time for death as an end, and Cunningham, always the showman, never had much time for any small ending. No, Johnny’s got a few full-stop reels and flourishes of the bow left in him; it’s simply our problem if we can’t hear them. 


When it comes to tallying up the music world’s losses, this Dec. 31 I’ll be toasting not to the beginning of a new year, but the end of the old. And when it comes to sweet Johnny C., it won’t be Jack or Jameson or Highland Park or Islay raised, it’ll be all of the above.


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