A Tribute to "Peerie" Willie Johnson by Davie Gardner

IN THE late afternoon of Tuesday 22 May 2007 Shetland lost a true musical legend with the quiet passing of 'Peerie' Willie Johnson at the age of 86.

Born in Yell, before moving to Lerwick, 'Peerie' Willie was our very own home-grown guitar genius, equally at home trading tunes, chords and licks in his 'local' with anyone who cared (or dared) to join in or modestly, even reluctantly, sharing the stage with some great musical names, occasionally in front of massive TV or radio audiences.

Perhaps today the words "legend" and "genius" are all too easily bandied about, often without just cause, but few, if any, would argue that Willie thoroughly deserved these tags in every sense of the words. Let's be honest, he first won the right to use them (although his modesty would never allow him to say so) many years ago, at a time when they were much harder earned and meant so much more than they often do nowadays. As a testament to this, Willie's fame was to last much much longer than the oft quoted "15 minutes", and it will not diminish with his passing or indeed time - most likely quite the opposite.

Willie's life story is more than well documented, so there's no need to go over it in detail again here. But suffice to say what he may have lacked in terms of physical stature he more than made up for when he picked up a guitar. It was then he became a true giant among men, head and shoulders above just about anyone else in his chosen genre.

Who, even among more internationally exalted names, can claim to have radically altered and inspired an entire musical genre (and subsequently generations of musicians into the bargain) the way Willie did, when he first fused his beloved jazz chords with Shetland's long acclaimed fiddle tradition. To put it mildly, guitar accompaniment was never quite the same again.

His intimate knowledge of the guitar, especially chord techniques, quite literally astounded those who thought they just about knew it all. Perhaps the best illustration of this came, once again modestly, from Willie's own memory when recalling how, in his younger days, he once sent for a music book "fae sooth" entitled "Every Known Guitar Chord". "I waited for weeks for it to come", said Willie. "I visited the post office every day until it arrived. Boy wis I disappointed - du sees for some reason I already kent dem a'. But I did notice the guy who wrat the book had missed a few, so I added dem in at da back o the book and sent it back tae him again."

This unique, natural talent ensured that 'Peerie' Willie became, not only a household name the length and breadth of his native islands, but by and large the world over into the bargain - especially in traditional music and jazz circles. It didn't seem to matter where a Shetlander travelled to in the world, if he or she were in even the vaguest musical circles the inevitable question was always asked - "How's Peerie Willie"? It might have come from a long lost musical acquaintance that he had met only once or simply in the passing, or from someone he'd once turned a few tunes with somewhere in the world many years back, or quite possibly from an international star such as Martin Taylor, or from an infinite number of other sources. Such was Willie's influence and personal impact it was truly a case of once met, or especially heard, never forgotten, whatever your musical level or persuasion.

  Let's go back to that word "modesty" again. World renowned for his talent he may have been, but Willie's roots, both musically and personally, were firmly embedded in Shetland and he was never happier as when he was surrounded by local friends and acquaintances, especially trading tunes with the younger generations. There were no airs and graces about Willie and he afforded no one else such a luxury, whatever their perceived status in life - musical or otherwise. He treated everyone equally and no matter what your international standing might be, it did not earn you any more of a place at Willie's 'top table' than the local pal or musician he possibly met on a daily basis.

Again an illustration of this can be left to Willie himself. When world-renowned guitarist Martin Taylor invited Willie to the front of the stage to offer his own personal debt of gratitude during a concert in Lerwick, Willie was seen to whisper something in Martin's ear by way of a reply. "That was a great moment, what did he say to you", I asked Martin after the concert. Martin laughed and shook his head. He told me "Never mind a yon nonsense boy, is du going to da Lounge for a tune when dis is all ower?" That was Willie for you in a nutshell.

If any measure be needed of the regard and esteem with which Willie was held within the national and international music world, it surely came in 2005 when he was one of the original inductees into the 'Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame'. Modest as always, when Willie was told of the honour he quipped, "Why wid dey want me in dere?" The question did not even merit an answer.

Of course Willie's name will forever be linked with the equally legendary Dr Tom Anderson, and others of that great Shetland musical era such as Ronnie Cooper or Willie Hunter, so it's comforting to think that our sad loss is perhaps someone else's gain and that maybe somewhere on 'the other side', at this very moment, some lucky blighters are sitting back watching this Shetland 'super-group' once again deliver a jaw-dropping set of tunes as they did so often in Shetland over so many years.

Willie may not have left an abundance of written or recorded material behind him but what he has left is an absolute wealth of wonderful memories at so may levels, the likes of which the rest of us can only dream about and seek to aspire to. Unlike Willie himself these are memories that will indeed live forever, and even though another wonderful, indeed magical, musical light has been 'slockit' today, it will never truly dim in every other respect.

Davie Gardner

Peerie Willie Guitar Festival 2010

Click Here for Video of the Garrison Theatre event

Click here for the Great St Ninian's Debate