Yesterday I received an email from a banjo player in the Shetland Isles named Gary Peterson who informed me that "Peerie" ("little") Willie Johnson had passed away at the ripe age of 86. I did not know Gary; nor had I seen wee Willie in many a year, but I had listed him high up as one of my influences on myspace and that is how Gary found me to tell me the news.
I wrote back to Gary [slightly edited]:
Having recounted for you my personal memoir of Willie, I urge you to read the obituary and learn something wonderful and life affirming about this wee giant; about how to lighten up, kick back and enjoy what precious time we have here on earth. And also the life-altering impact that your words and deeds might have on a young person many years hence.
I am deeply saddened to hear of Willie's passing. Was he ever a huge influence on my guitar playing and also as a very decent human being.
When I was a 17 year old pip at the Mariposa Folk Festival in my hometown of Toronto, back in the late 1970s, it was Willie who tolerated me and actually welcomed me sitting at the hem of his garment, listening to him and absorbing everything I saw.
He taught me the concept of passing and melodic chords. He showed me some neat inside chords and I clearly remember him teaching me the very cool passing chords that I use on songs like Lady Be Good: "Put your fingers here on this fret...mute that string with the inside of your hand...now run that chord down four frets, strumming each as you go...you can thumb over if it's easier..." and so on. We talked about Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. Willie was one of the first grown ups (if not THE only grown up at the time!) to take my passion for the guitar seriously.
I spent three delicious days with him, hanging around and watching, watching, watching. I never heard on recordings what I heard him play in our precious moments together and I will treasure that memory forever.
Today I find myself with teenage guitar students and I only hope that they feel I take them as seriously as Willie took me.
Peerie Willie Johnson
Influential folk guitarist of Shetland
Published: 29 May 2007
William Henry Johnson, guitarist: born 10 December 1920; married 1953 Ethel Johnson (deceased); died Lerwick, Shetland 22 May 2007.
Peerie Willie Johnson was a self-taught master guitarist, revered for his skill as an accompanist and as an influence on generations of musicians in his native Shetland and beyond. He was known for his unique "dum chuck" rhythmic playing style, which fused elements of jazz and western swing with Shetland's traditional folk idiom. In 2005 the Shetland Arts Trust celebrated his achievement with the inauguration of the "Peerie Willie Guitar Festival".
Nicknamed "Peerie" (Shetland dialect for "small") because of his height, Willie Johnson grew up on the remote, windswept island of Yell, one of the most northerly and sparsely populated of the Shetland islands. During a childhood illness that kept him housebound for months, he developed a love of jazz and western swing while listening to American forces short-wave radio. Fascinated by the complex chords of the jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, he began to figure them out on a ukulele that his mother had bought him. When the limitations of the instrument later became apparent, he progressed to guitar, joining his first local band at the age of 14.
In 1936 - by which time he had also fallen under the influence of the music of Django Rheinhardt - a chance encounter in a music shop led to him joining the Islesburgh Dance Band, led by the fiddler Dr Tom Anderson, whom he would accompany on and off throughout much of the latter's life. He and Anderson also formed another group, in 1938, called the New Players Dance Band with the piano/organ player Billy Kaye, but they disbanded when Kaye and Johnson were called up in 1940.
While stationed in Sullom Voe on mainland Shetland, Johnson played with an RAF band, thus meeting many British jazz musicians. After the Second World War, he moved to London and briefly made a living playing with a number of his wartime contacts, though he was hampered by his inability to read music. He soon returned to Shetland, settling in Lerwick and marrying Ethel Johnson (no relation) in 1953.
He lived off odd jobs and the income his true vocation brought him on occasional tours with other musicians. His collaborations with Anderson resumed, and in 1958 he travelled to London with the Shetland fiddler Willie Hunter for a performance at the Royal Festival Hall. That same trip, he and Hunter stunned the staff at Abbey Road Studios by recording both sides of a joint LP (never released) for the BBC in a morning's work, polishing off a bottle of whisky between them in the process. "The second half of the album is much better than the first," Johnson observed.
Hunter and Johnson also performed regularly together at the Edinburgh Festival between 1973 and 1980. A modest man who underestimated his own abilities, Johnson never made a solo album, recording only as an accompanist to others, such as Anderson, the pianist Violet Tulloch and the fiddler Aly Bain, who he joined on tour with the Boys of the Lough in the US in 1978/9.
Johnson's distinctive playing can be heard on Scottish Violin Music (1963), Shetland Folk Fiddling Vol 2 (1978), Cathal McConnell's 1978 solo début On Lough Erne's Shore, and Aly Bain's First Album (1984), which contains Johnson' best known piece, an interpretation of the tune "Margaret's Waltz". Johnson also appeared on Silver Bow - Fiddle Music of Shetland (1995).
In 1988, Aly Bain began hosting Down Home, a Channel 4 series on which Johnson regularly featured. Johnson and Hunter later made several appearances on Norwegian television and radio.
Johnson's playing style is widely credited with influencing not just his contemporaries, but also a number of younger musicians including the Wrigley Sisters, from Orkney, and the jazz guitarist Martin Taylor. In 2005, Taylor travelled to Shetland to make a BBC radio documentary about Johnson. He recalls him thus:
I don't think I've ever met another musician who was so full of music. It's almost as if he was more than a musician. Every atom in his body was music, and his enthusiasm was quite amazing. If he was in the Lounge [his local bar] and someone started to play, he just picked up whatever instrument was there, whatever just came to hand, he was just so natural.