Johnny Cunningham

Arts / Dec. 25, 2003 12:00am EST

Johnny Cunningham:

A Memory

One of the last concerts played by the great Scottish fiddle player Johnny Cunningham, who died last week of a heart attack at the age of 46, was at Chandler Music Hall in Randolph.

Cunningham played one of the final sets at the 2003 New World Festival on Aug. 31. It was the third time he had played at the Music Hall and his turn on the Chandler stage was momentous, a tour de force.

First he congratulated the Randolph area for appreciating fiddlers so much. "Fiddle capital of the world," I think he said, a considerable exaggeration but a warm acknowledgement of the amount of traditional music that has been sponsored here.

He said he would begin his set by playing an old song he had learned as a child. He didn't know just what he would play after that. "I think I'll play some music I usually wouldn't," he said, "because I think this audience will appreciate it." We took that as a great compliment.

Then Johnny tucked in his fiddle, and he played for fifty straight minutes—without a break. No sooner would one lovely song die away than another would slyly take its place, maybe a jig or old-fashioned strathspey. Then came tender quiet songs like my grandmother's favorite, the Skye Boat Song: "Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing…"

It was as if he could not stop the flow of music within him, and the audience was rapt and dead silent. My wife and I both felt it was a historic moment in the old Music Hall, and I know others did, too. It was the night that Johnny Cunningham couldn't stop playing.

Now that he is gone, we feel again the magnitude of his bequest, and we are grateful.

—Dick Drysdale

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