Phil Cunningham sat alone on the large stage, eyes closed, as he wrung a slow, sad air from his custom Borsini accordion in memory of his brother Johnny. The Faerieworlds Festival crowd of several hundred, which moments before had been boisterously dancing, clapping, singing and talking, fell silent. The fair-haired Scot said the tune, which he had never before played in public, was named simply “Johnny.”
It was the first tune of an encore by members of an all-star band that gathered to pay tribute to Johnny Cunningham, fiddler extraordinaire, who died in late 2003. The late musician was remembered by his surviving relatives, friends and fellow performers as a sweet human being, a stellar player and composer, and a candidate for “king of the faeries.”
It was a night for reminiscing. “Johnny was a very skinny kid with white-blonde hair,” Phil said. “His nickname at school was ‘Faerie.’ When I came to the same school two years later, my nickname was ‘Faerie, Jr.'”
But it was mostly a night of musical tributes. The band — fiddlers Kevin Burke and Dana Lyn, guitarist Aidan Brennan, multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and singer Susan McKeown in addition to Phil — chose numbers from all segments of Johnny’s career, including the seminal Silly Wizard, Nightnoise and his many solo outings and collaborations.
The first part of the program featured a quick skim through of one of Johnny’s last big projects, the Obie-award winning musical play, peter and wendy, based on J.M. Barrie’s book Peter Pan. Actress Karen Kandel, who performed all of the voices in the original puppet production of the play, again did the honors here, narrating the story as illustrations of the tale flashed on a large screen overhead. The high point was the “Alligator Tango,” the song of Capt. Hook’s scaly nemesis.
Then the band ran through some of the high points of Johnny’s earlier career, including “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” from the Celtic Fiddle Festival album; the jig set “Pipe on the Hob/ Hag at the Churn” from an early Bothy Band album; the reel set “Martin Wynne’s/the Longford Tinker” from the Bothys’ first album; and “Night in That Land,” a lovely waltz-time air from the group Nightnoise. Throughout there were personal memories and comments from the musicians. Phil confessed that he’d spent the previous night attempting to learn “Martin Wynne’s” off of Burke’s old LP; “you didn’t learn it,” Burke chided him at tune’s end. Phil said he had only learned after Johnny’s passing that his brother had written “Night in That Land” one night while visiting Phil on the Isle of Skye.
After Phil’s solo encore turn, the rest of the band returned, bringing with them Casey Neill with his guitar, for a rousing singalong on “The Mingulay Boat Song,” with its enchanting chorus: “heel y’ho boys, let her go, boys, /bring her head round into the weather/heel y’ho boys, let her go boys,/sailing homeward to Mingulay.” Then, because the concert was coinciding with a “blue moon,” the second full moon within a calendar month, the band, with McKeown leading on vocals, performed a jigged-up version of “Blue Moon,” which segued into “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and finally into a straight rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Again, the hundreds in the crowd joined in, singing along in a touching, emotion-packed finale.
The crowd had been warmed up by Solas, which had dedicated a beautiful air called “Every Mountain You Climb” to Johnny, led by fiddler Winifred Horan. Seamus Egan played whistles of various sizes, banjo, mandolin, and acoustic and electric guitar, Mick McAuley accordion, Eamon McElholm guitar and Deirdre Scanlan vocals in the hour-long set.
Songs and tunes Solas performed included “Bird in the Tree,” “Wiggly Jigs,” “Seoladh na nGamhna” and Dougie McLean’s “This Love Will Carry,” all from Another Day; “The Waking Up Set” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” from The Words That Remain ; Bob Dylan’s “Dignity” and “Beck Street” from The Edge of Silence; and the reel set “Granny Quinn’s/Lilac/Sporting Paddy” from The Hour Before Dawn. Win and Deirdre kicked off their shoes and leapt off the stage during the rousing closing number, “Bird in the Tree,” to join with the dancing crowd. And “This Love Will Carry” became yet another touching singalong for the rapt audience.
(Faerieworlds Festival, North Plains, Oregon, July 31, 2004)