Johnny Cunningham, In Memoriam

Johnny Cunningham was born on August 27, 1957, and passed on at the age of 46, on December 15, 2003 -- far too soon. The Celtic world mourns the loss, but we fans are grateful for the music left behind, which will live on along with great memories of Johnny.

The following writings are by Earle Hitchner, reposted with permission.


[Published in Earle Hitchner's "Ceol" column on December 24, 2003, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

Christmas is a time for giving, and there was no greater giver of "comfort and joy" -- through the special alchemy of music, laughter, and storytelling -- than Johnny Cunningham. The acclaimed Scots fiddler, composer, and record producer died at age 46 of a heart attack just 10 days before Christmas. No words of mine can do justice to his, so I'll let some of Johnny's own words convey his unique humor and spirit. About five years ago at the Turning Point in Piermont, N.Y., he and button accordionist Joe Derrane gave their only concert as a duo. Introducing Johnny, who performed first, I summarized some of his talents, including that of raconteur. When Johnny took the stage, he feigned confusion. "Raconteur? What's that? Some sort of gardening implement?"

His reality-tilting quips, anecdotes, and stories had the audience in stitches. "Joe and I are on an East Coast tour together," he said. "This is our only gig. That's because we're old now. We're calling this the 'Born to Be Mild' tour."

Then Johnny spoke about the traditional tunes he was going to play. "They all sound the same because, in fact, they're all the same tune." In talking about his grandmother, Johnny mentioned how she suddenly adopted a more healthful approach to life after reading a magazine article about it. "My granny is 93 this year," he said, "and she cut back on her smoking at age 75, going from three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day to one pack of filtered cigarettes. She also read that walking is good for you, so since age 75 she's been walking 6 to 9 miles a day." After a pause, he added, "Of course, we don't know where the hell she is now." Another pause. "She could be here."


Fiddler Kevin Burke also brought up Johnny Cunningham's wit. "He said part of his heritage was Irish and the other part was Scottish, so half of him wanted a drink and the other half didn't want to pay for it," Burke recounted with a laugh from his home in Portland, Oregon. Over the past decade, Burke toured and recorded three albums with Johnny Cunningham and Christian Lemaître as the Celtic Fiddle Festival, who represented the Irish, Scottish, and Breton traditions in fiddling. "Johnny and I had talked about doing a tour together as far back as 1981-82," Burke said. "At first, we thought it should be him, me, and Bob Marley's Wailers. That idea cropped up well after midnight and a few pints."

The lineup of Cunningham, Burke, and Lemaître, with backing guitarist John McGann, toured initially in 1992. "Halfway through the first tour, the second tour was almost completely booked," Kevin said. "We had no idea that it was going to maintain for this long. I think people were interested in hearing the fiddle on its own, the way it used to be heard, apart from folk groups like Johnny's Silly Wizard and the Bothy Band I played with. Each of us gave our own separate tradition an unadorned, direct statement in concert. It was the easiest setup I ever worked with, and one of the most effective."

When asked about Johnny Cunningham's technique as a fiddler, Burke responded with unstinting praise. "He used to play these mad, fast, flying sets of reels, and at the drop of a hat, he'd turn around and play the most sensitive slow air that would produce a teary eye even in a wizened old hack like myself."

Burke also cited Johnny Cunningham's naturalness in performance. "Johnny's demeanor and stagecraft were fantastic," he said. "Even if he was not feeling well or in a bad humor, as soon as he set foot on stage, he wasn't going to let anyone down. He really understood the psyche of an audience."

Flute and tin whistle player Joanie Madden, leader of Cherish the Ladies, remembered how effective Johnny was as a producer of the band's "Out and About" and "New Day Dawning" albums. "He got the most out of musicians by creating an environment where the hard work and pressure of the studio became something you looked forward to because everything about it was fun," she said from the road with Cherish. "Laughter began the minute he walked through the door. It was contagious and impossible to ignore."

Button accordionist John Whelan also benefited from Johnny's relaxed, reassuring presence in the recording studio. "He was a guest on my 'Celtic Crossroads' album and was superb to work with," Whelan recalled from his home in Milford, Conn. "Johnny was so instinctive and supportive. He was producing a Solas album downstairs and came upstairs to work on two tracks of my album."


Johnny Cunningham read a book or two a day. "It's how he relaxed and got away from everything," Trisha McCormick, his life partner, said from the lower Manhattan apartment they shared. "He loved books, and it goes along with his storytelling and feeds his own stories." Cooking and fishing, especially on small commercial boats off the coast of his adopted hometown of New Bedford, Mass., were other pursuits that gave him pleasure and peace.

He was also an effortless master at the oft-neglected art of conversation, whether in his favorite Manhattan pub, 11th Street Bar, or elewhere, and he relished movies and writing.

"Johnny started two short stories that I have," Trisha said, "and wrote little rhymes and poetry. We wrote a screenplay together, 'Seeds of Crime,' a comedy about corruption in the food industry."

She also mentioned Johnny's unusual relationship with automobiles, many of which were in continual need of repair. "We drove up to New Bedford last Christmas, and we didn't have any heat in the car," she recalled. "The antifreeze was spitting through the air-conditioner ducts, so we had to put plastic around our faces to protect us as the whole interior of the car was being coated with antifreeze for three and a half hours. But Johnny made it into something that was a fun adventure. He would make the most ordinary things magical."


I met Johnny Cunningham not long after he emigrated from Scotland to America in 1981. An early connection came at a solo concert he gave at the old Towne Crier Cafe in Beekman, N.Y. Inside a charming, cracker-barrel-style,
L-shaped room in a wooden building that dated back to the Revolutionary War, he mesmerized the audience with blazing dance tunes, poignant airs, and a huge helping of hilarity. I remember he stayed afterward to socialize, then climbed into his car and headed back to Sumneytown, Pa., where he was living then.

Years later, after a Silly Wizard concert in N.J., Johnny stayed in my apartment, and I noticed a paperback of William Blake's poetry in his fiddle case. We spent a good portion of the night and early morning talking about "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience." Though he left school prematurely, Johnny Cunningham was an autodidact of the first order and had one of the most astute, acquisitive, creative minds I've ever encountered.

He was an accomplished fencer in Scotland and taught his younger brother, Phil, some rudiments of the sport. As a schoolboy in Scotland, Johnny was part of a group called Home Brew, and in Pennsylvania he played for a time with a country band but left when they started covering Beach Boys' songs. Also less-known about him was a traffic accident in London that crushed the bones in his feet and left him with a limp and nerve pain -- sometimes pronounced, sometimes slight -- the rest of his life.

Johnny Cunningham enjoyed choral music, John Coltrane's recordings, Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts' "The Liffey Banks" album, and Foreigner's pop hit "I Want to Know What Love Is," which he confessed once brought him to tears in the car. He had the ability to slip beneath the wrapper of cliché to see or feel whatever truth of experience was there to begin with.

Besides fiddle, Johnny could play piano and guitar, and at an after-concert party for Relativity in Morristown, N.J., he stunned me with his fine guitar accompaniment for Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill as she sang Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather."

The musical legacy of Johnny Cunningham is assured through Relativity, Celtic Fiddle Festival, Nightnoise, Raindogs, Mabou Mines' "Peter & Wendy," two solo albums and one duet recording with brother Phil, and Silly Wizard, a Scots traditional band without peer in its combination of music and mirth.

Most professional musicians are adept at self-expression. Far fewer are adept at communicating with an audience. Johnny Cunningham was a genius at both. He may have struggled with his health and finances, but he never struggled with the music, stories, and attention he lavished on people.

"A heart is to be spent," wrote poet Stephen Dunn. Johnny Cunningham did that, willingly and freely, and nothing can stop the wide-open heart he left us.

Donations to defray the cost of sending Johnny Cunningham's ashes back to Scotland can be sent to:

Patricia McCormick
345 East 18th Street, #248
New York, NY 10003

Remembrances and condolences can be mailed to the same address or e-mailed at

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Fiddler Johnny Cunningham Passes Away at Age 46
By Earle Hitchner
[Published on December 17, 2003, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City.]

One of Scotland's finest fiddlers and composers, and a raconteur of brimming wit, Johnny Cunningham died on Monday night, December 15, 2003, at age 46. Johnny suffered a heart attack in the lower Manhattan apartment he shared with Trisha McCormick, his screenplay-writing partner and girlfriend of four years. He also maintained a home in New Bedford, Mass.

On Saturday, December 13, at the Egg in Albany, N.Y., Johnny finished his "Winter Talisman" holiday tour with singer Susan McKeown and guitarist Aidan Brennan. A severe snowstorm on December 14 forced the cancellation of the originally scheduled, tour-concluding concert in Oxford, N.Y., and they drove back that Sunday to New York City, where on Monday Johnny recorded a track for McKeown's next album.

Johnny was exhausted from the tour, said McCormick, and felt ill later on Monday at his favorite Manhattan haunt, the 11th Street Bar, located at 510 East 11th Street. A friend helped him to his nearby apartment, where the onset of chest pains led to a 911 call. Emergency medical workers spent 40 minutes trying to revive him.

Born in Portobello, Scotland, on August 27, 1957, Johnny Cunningham had played fiddle since age seven. As a young teenager, he helped to found Silly Wizard, an exciting and highly influential Scottish traditional band of the 1970s and '80s. Relativity, Celtic Fiddle Festival, Raindogs, and Nightnoise were other groups featuring his diverse musical talents, and he had toured with the pop group Hall & Oates, New England singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey, and former Malicorne vocalist Gabriel Yacoub.

A U.S. resident for more than two decades, Johnny was also a skillful producer of albums by Cherish the Ladies, Solas, Gerald Trimble, Orealis, the Prodigals, Áine Minogue, Brooks Williams, and Lui Collins. His music, lyrics, arrangements, and live playing were linchpins of "Peter & Wendy," Mabou Mines' Obie-winning theatrical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's tale about Peter Pan, and he collaborated and performed on "The Soul of Christmas" album and PBS-TV special.

Besides Trisha McCormick in New York, Johnny is survived in Scotland by his mother, Mary, his brother, Phil, his sister, Laura, and his grandmother, Martha Knowles.

A viewing for Johnny Cunningham will be held on Thursday, December 18, from 4 to 8 p.m., in the parish hall of St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues), Manhattan. Call 212-226-5579 for more information.

Music and drinks to toast Johnny's life will take place after the viewing at the 11th Street Bar, 510 East 11th Street (between Avenues A and B), Manhattan.

Cards of remembrance or sympathy can be sent to Johnny Cunningham, c/o 11th Street Bar, 510 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10009. Donations are also being accepted to bring Johnny and his music back to Scotland, where an additional service will be held at a later date.

For all other questions, call 212-982-3929. Johnny's official website is, where messages of condolence can be submitted by e-mail.

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Click here for the Kennedy Center videoclips of four of Johnny's performances, including the one on December 3rd with Susan McKeown and Aidan Brennan, less than two weeks before his passing. Watching it is extremely bittersweet.

Please note, Earle Hitchner will be writing a much longer piece about Johnny in next week's Irish Echo. The following review and interview were written by Earle in his "Ceol" column after seeing the concert at the World Music Institute with Johnny and Phil Cunningham in October, 2003. Earle hopes that "During this profoundly sad time, I hope they kindle a smile of recognition for what Johnny gave all of us for so many years."

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Beam Me Up, Scotties
By Earle Hitchner
[Published on October 22, 2003, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City]

Fiddler Johnny Cunningham admitted disappointment at not meeting Spock, the pointy-eared character on "Star Trek," during the two concerts he gave with his piano accordionist brother, Phil, on Oct. 14. So to cheer themselves up inside Manhattan's Leonard Nimoy Thalia, a theater named for the actor who played Spock, the Cunninghams concocted a "Star Trek" song and played a passage from the TV series theme with a Scottish traditional flavor.

This fun-loving spirit was matched by sharp playing from the two siblings, who were the driving instrumental engine of acclaimed Scots band Silly Wizard. They perform on the premise that if they're having a good time, the audience will, too. And they're right.

From the opening medley of "Cathcart/Drummond Castle/Jig of Slurs/Atholl Highlanders/Apple Tree," the crowd knew it was in good hands and company. Johnny's bowing became almost sportive during "Jig of Slurs," and Phil's fingerwork on his Borsini box was fleet and expert. "Leaving Brittany" and "The Pernod Waltz," which were written and co-written by Johnny, retained the swaying buoyancy heard on the first Relativity album 18 years ago, and Phil followed with a French Canadian tune, "Le Minuet."

A dance-rhythm punch from the brothers' Relativity days also surfaced in their playing of "The Hut on Staffin Island," "Sandy MacLeod of Garafad," "The Soft Horse Reel," "Blackwell Court," and "Hogties' Reel," all composed by Phil.

Some trademark tunes from their Silly Wizard tenure, such as the strathspey "Laird of Drumblair," the reel "Lexy McAskill," and "Jean's Reel," blazed with renewed ardor and joy, and Johnny's "half-Scottish, half-Irish, half-Jewish" composition, "The Kosher Reel," was performed by the pair with a tightrope balance of control and abandon.

Johnny, who can propel dance tunes as well as anyone, may excel above all at slow airs. Backed by Phil on a Yamaha acoustic piano, Johnny's fiddling of the traditional "Hector the Hero" took the full emotional measure of the air, while his playing on "Two Is the Beginning of the End," which he composed for Mabou Mines' theatrical production of "Peter & Wendy," conveyed a tender, almost aching wistfulness.

Phil also played two exquisite slow airs, each an original: "Sarah's Song" and a brand-new, untitled piece.

It was a night full of virtuosic fiddling and accordion and piano playing, and no shortage of slagging and laughing. Said Johnny to Phil, who was testing the keys on the Yamaha piano: "Do that a few more times, and you can get a record contract with Windham Hill." From Phil: "A penguin walks into a pub and asks the bartender, 'Was my dad in here earlier?' The bartender thinks for a moment, then says, 'I don't know. What does he look like?'"

Choones and chuckles left the audience beaming and, yes, "beamed up."

Here's hoping the Cunninghams come back soon and often.

• • •

Sibling Revelry: Johnny and Phil Cunningham

By Earle Hitchner
[Published on October 8, 2003, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City]

Sure, there’s brotherly love. But it seems to take a brotherly shove to get fiddler Johnny Cunningham and piano accordionist Phil Cunningham to perform together anymore.

“When you’re separated by 3,000 miles of water, it tends to get in the way,” 46-year-old Johnny Cunningham said from his home in New Bedford, Mass. Phil, two and a half years younger than Johnny, still lives in Scotland. But on Tues., Oct. 14, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., the brothers who were the instrumental heart of acclaimed Scots traditional band Silly Wizard will be making their first concert appearance together in New York City since the late 1980s.

This past summer, they managed to get together for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and a festival in New Bedford. Those performances kindled the desire for the Manhattan one. “We’d actually forgotten how good it is to play together,” Johnny said.

Still, it took quick planning to schedule this New York City concert reunion. Before coming to Nashville to organize a Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) show for BBC Scotland, Phil phoned his brother to suggest they do a concert in Manhattan, where he would be staying for a few days in October. Johnny called New York’s World Music Institute for venue recommendations, and WMI immediately responded with an offer to sponsor two shows at Leonard Nimoy Thalia, a theater named after the actor who played Spock in the “Star Trek” TV series and movies.

“Phil and I are hoping a lot of Trekkies show up,” Johnny said. “I’m going to be wearing my pointy ears. I have a pair that I wore for a concert in Tucson, Arizona, but nobody noticed. When I took them off, I realized my own ears were similarly shaped.”

This irrepressible humor is an integral part of any stage performance by the Cunninghams. “Phil will be at one end, playing ‘Lady of Spain, and I’ll be at the other end, serving drinks,” Johnny said. “You have to realize that when you play traditional music, you have to have a backup, otherwise known as bartending or cab driving. Somebody once asked, ‘How do you make a million dollars in traditional music?’ The answer is: Start with two million.’”

Seldom taking themselves seriously, Johnny and Phil Cunningham do take their music seriously. In fact, they are two of the finest instrumentalists to emerge from the Scottish folk revival of the 1970s and ’80s, and are greatly admired by their musical counterparts in Ireland and Irish America.

Dolores Keane, for example, had Phil produce her self-titled CD in 1988, and Altan brought Phil in to produce their “Horse With a Heart” album in 1989. Cherish the Ladies invited Johnny to produce their “Out and About” CD in 1993, and Solas got Johnny to produce their self-titled debut in 1996 and “Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers” in 1997, each of which won an Association for Independent Music award as best Celtic recording of the year.

Besides their long, stellar career with Silly Wizard, the Cunningham brothers have recorded and toured together with Relativity (a quartet including ex-Bothy Band members Tríona and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill) and issued one duet album, “Against the Storm,” in 1980.

Happily, the 23-year drought in duet recording will end soon. “Phil and I will be in the studio this January over here and during February or March in Scotland and Ireland,” Johnny said. “Once the album comes out, we’ll also do a proper tour behind it. We haven’t given much thought to where the album will go. Everything in the recording industry seems to be in such chaos, so it’s a good time for us to add to it.”

For anyone hoping to see another reunion, that of Silly Wizard, who gave their last concert in April 1988, Johnny Cunningham had a fast, firm response. “No,” he said. “We felt that when we finished, we finished on the right note. People have fond memories of Silly Wizard and of our shows, and it would be kind of sad if we got back together and it was anything less than that.”

Two other bands featuring Johnny, Relativity and Nightnoise, may blend personnel for a tour in Spain next year, however. “It’s only being talked about right now,” he said. “It would be Phil, me, Tríona, Mícheál, and Brian [Dunning, Nightnoise’s flutist]. We could call ourselves Noise-ativity.”

These new opportunities to perform come just a year after Johnny Cunningham fractured his wrist while running on a California beach. “I had a brief health spurt that led to eight months’ loss of work,” he said. “I hit a patch of hard kelp and somersaulted a few times. Each time I came down, I broke my wrist in another direction.

“If I had surgery, it would have fixed my wrist in one position and basically ended my fiddle playing. So I let my wrist heal naturally. It looks funny now, and sometimes it gives me pain. But I wanted to get back out and play some tunes because there was a fear for a while that I wouldn’t be able to ever again.”

Performing beside his brother provides a balm of a different, deeper sort. “Phil and I have always been close, despite geography,” Johnny said. “At this point in our lives, we can make more time to play together, and we want to play together more. It’s as simple as that, and for me there’s nothing like it. We always have a blast on stage, and at the New York gig we’ll probably tell a few stories, play a ton of traditional music, and do some of our own compositions.”

For music and craic combined, this Oct. 14 Big Apple reunion concert by Johnny and Phil Cunningham should be something special.

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Besides contributing articles and reviews to The Wall Street Journal, Earle Hitchner is a weekly music columnist for the Irish Echo newspaper. He has also written on music for Billboard, MTV’s Sonicnet, Details, New Choices, and The Oxford American, and been a seven-time nominating judge for annual awards given by the Association for Independent Music (AFIM).

Earle has provided liner notes for more than 50 recordings, including the Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1998. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He has also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television, and lectured on the subject at Boston College, New York University, Milwaukee Irish Fest, and the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

See more of Earle's online features at, as well as in his special section at the Celtic Cafe, by clicking here.

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Feature: Bernadette Price
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

Johnny Cunningham



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