‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson (1920-2007)

1. 7. 2007 | Rubriky: Články,Lives,Multilingual

‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson (1920-2007)

[by Ken Hunt, London] ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson’s birthplace was the Shetland Islands. They are home to one of the most fascinating of Scotland’s indigenous folkways. The Shetlands are a cluster of islands and a cultural staging post. Head south and before you reach the Scottish mainland you come to the Orkneys. Head north and you’ll reach the Arctic Circle. Head east and you make landfall in Scandinavia. To the north-west are the Faroes and then Iceland. To the west is North America. The geographical position and isolation of the Shetlands were what created ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson’s consummate self-taught guitar style. He was a musical one-off. Like Joseph Spence in the faraway Bahamas, Johnson’s musical style was a product of island isolation and the outside world leaking in.

Born William Henry Johnson on Yell, the Shetlands’ second largest island, on December 10 1920. He acquired the Scots ‘peerie’ as his nickname. In this and similar contexts, the word ‘peerie’ means ‘little’ or ‘small’. It appears in Scots expressions like ‘peerie-pinkie’ (the little finger) and ‘peerie-weerie-winkie’ (excessively small) and in Fair Isle sweater knitting as a small 5-7 row pattern. (Fair Isle is the most southerly of the Shetlands.) ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson’s father died in Jamaica when he was a wean (infant).

His mother Divina raised him with the help of family. He grew up in Lerwick, the islands’ capital on the so-called Mainland. A sickly child, bouts of illness often confined him to his bed. There he read and listened to the wireless. One day his eyes fell upon a set of ukulele chord positions in The News of the World, the Sunday newspaper fondly nicknamed The News of the Screws. He got his mother to get him one. As a fiddle and melodeon player herself, she was happy to see him develop a musical mind. Eventually, dissatisfied with the ukulele’s non-existent bass register, he prevailed upon his cousin John Leask to make him his first guitar. Between the Shetlands and the United States there are no hills to mention. In the cat’s whisker days of his youth Johnson tuned into radio stations broadcasting from the USA. Radio eavesdroppings transformed his musical worldview. It turned him onto swing and jazz. The Scots songwriter Michael Marra recounted Johnson’s tale of absorbing these shortwave broadcasts in his song Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson.

In 1936 he got into a conversation with the great Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson (1910-1991), ten years his senior, in a Lerwick music shop. Anderson asked him to join the Islesburgh Dance Band. It was the start of a long-running musical partnership – albeit one not entirely free of frictions – that lasted until Anderson died in 1991. Johnson on guitar and Anderson on fiddle became a classic combination, comparable in its Shetlander way to the Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli and Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti guitar/violin combinations that had fired Johnson’s imagination. Hearing those strange jazz chords put him on the path to working out every chord he could.

In 1940 he was called up into the Royal Air Force (RAF). The War was raging and after initial training he was posted to the Shetlands. The islands had attained a still greater strategic role with the fascist occupation of Norway and Johnson was posted there as ground crew on Catalina flying boats. After the outbreak of the War in 1939, the RAF had been the first choice for pre-war civilian dance band musicians (whether pro or semi-pro). RAF dance bands were consequently full of talent of world-class caliber. By coincidence, around 1941 Les Hunt, my bandsman father, was posted to the Shetlands as RAF Sullum Voe’s full-time clarinetist, alto sax player and arranger – the same base on which Willie Johnson was stationed and the band Johnson used to sit in and jam with.

In Shetlander traditional music the foregrounding of fiddle and later piano music remains the norm. Johnson created a new idiom subtly inflected with jazz voicings that differed from those found in standard Shetland reels, wedding marches, and strathspeys, yet complimented the tradition. Likewise, as a bassist – stand-up bass and electric bass – he brought new ideas about walking bass lines to his guitar playing.

Strangely, despite a life lived in music and an extensive recording legacy dating back to the 1960s, he never released an album under his own name. He may be heard on anthologies such as Shetland Folk Fiddling Vol 2 (1978) which was reissued as the second half of Topic’s CD, The Silver Bow (1993), the Boys of the Lough’s Good FriendsGood Music (1977), Cathal McConnell of the Boys of the Lough’s solo outing, On Lough Erne’s Shore (1979), and on numerous projects that his fellow-Shetlander Aly Bain put together. At the time of Johnson’s death though, his half-sister Evelyn Leask had nearly finished his solo debut for the Scottish label, Greentrax, drawn from unreleased archival recordings.

Inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year the Shetlands inaugurated the Peerie Willie Johnson Guitar Festival, his ultimate legacy was his innovative new approach to playing traditional Shetlander and Scots music. That influence has been assimilated by the next generations of Shetlander, Orcadian (the adjective denoting an Orkneys connection) and Scots musicians; even if they adhere to other stylistic approaches, they are aware of the ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson style of playing. He died of emphysema on May 22 2007 in Lerwick.


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