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Clip: A Good Year for Black Roses

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/music/story.cfm?type=Riffs Riffs 12/25/2003 A Good Year for Black Roses Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER Damn this year and its black
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2004

      A Good Year for Black Roses

      Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER

      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 LemaƮtre, 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:
      LemaƮtre'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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