Johnny’s Tune

I first heard Phil Cunningham (composer) during Garrison Keillor’s introduction of “Phil and Aly” during the Sat Mar 29, 2008 radio broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion.” After a generous introduction of Phil and Aly, Mr. Keillor asked Phil Cunningham what they would play. He answered:

I’m going to play a tune that I composed for my brother: Johnny, who passed away a year ago. And, it was kind of an inevitable thing that we would write something for him. And, I tried to choose whether it would be a big, happy thing—because he was a big, happy guy; but, he was also an emotional nightmare. The part of me that is very Scottish, (and) that I’m at my very happiest when I’m miserable, it won—and he got a slow “Aire.” So this is a tune called “Johnny’s Tune.”

Fiddle with Johnny's Song Music

Fiddle with Johnny’s Tune Music (Illustration by S. Owen, Jr.)

From the instant that Phil and Aly began to play, I was entranced. Aly Bain’s exquisite, traditional Scottish fiddle-playing resonated with persistent emotion; and, that was accompanied by Phil Cunningham’s accordion in a way that could only have been achieved by the song’s composer. I was emotionally moved by their performance. And, I was was not surprised that Mr. Keillor’s comment to their performance was: “That was lovely… that was perfect.” I agreed with Mr. Keillor and knew then that I wished to record “Johnny’s Tune.”

After that broadcast I learned that Phil and Johnny Cunningham had played together for many years during their respective careers. Many recordings exist as record of the collaborations of Phil and Johnny Cunningham.

Later that week I was able to find the archived recording of the Prairie Home Compainion broadcast at the Prairie Home Companion website. I transcribed the song and Phil Cunningham’s quotation (above) from the broadcast recording.

To record the fiddle in this piece I used “Synful Orchestra.” The fiddle track is panned slightly left of center. The accompaniment used three (3) tracks (melody, chordal, and bass) of (Yamaha MU100R) synthesizer-accordion. I believed that three (3) accordion tracks were necessary for me to attempt to recreate Phil Cunningham’s solo accordion performance. The accordion tracks are all panned slightly to the right of center.

In October, 2010, I updated this post to include an original animation I made using the (free) 3D modeling and animation program, Blender. The on-stage music manuscript pages were produced from the Digital Performer QuickScribe window. The 2D violin and bow are the same original art used in on this page (left). This was the first animation project that I have done using Blender. (Editor’s note: I used the Mac-only, “Kinemac” program for previous animations (Adagio for Strings) and iMovie for others (Billy Mayerl and Oscar Peterson).)

“Phil and Aly” artistically inflected the tempo of their performance with variations (rubato) that were wonderfully expressive. My initial (imitative) recording attempts were unsatisfying in comparison because my rendition seemed too slow and lacked vitality. After much debate (largely with myself) I added a supporting piano part (using Synthogy Ivory ) that is intended to help provide rhythmic drive. The piano track is panned more to the left than the fiddle.

My goal has been to share (with you) the beauty of this wonderful song. I have attempted to remain faithful to the spirit of the Phil and Aly performance that I first heard on Prairie Home Companion. I (for some time) believed that the name of this song was “Johnny’s Song” — until, I listened repeatedly to the broadcast recording; and, I finally realized that the name was actually: “Johnny’s Tune.

Johnny’s Tune I hope that you enjoy my recording of “Johnny’s Tune.” As always, I welcome and appreciate your comments.

6 comments to Johnny’s Tune

  • Jim Frost

    Dear Mr. Owen, I also was listening to this performance on that day. l was also moved emotionally by this song and have sought to find a recording ever since. Thank for you lovely rendition of “Johnny’s Tune”, you have done it justice and I’m sure Mr. Cunningham would be well pleased.

    • Stan Owen, Jr.

      Mr. Frost, Hearing positive commentary by you and other persons who either heard or were in attendance at this particular performance — makes my “labor of love” to find, transcribe, perform and record it, worth it. Thank you very much for your bolstering words. — S. Owen, Jr.

  • George

    Hearing this on PHC as we drove cross-country was one of my wife’s and myself’s favorite musical moments of all lifetime. It is incredibly moving – achingly, to tears every time we listen. I had planned to do essentially what you did here, as I don’t believe the piece has been recorded or published, other than on PHC. This tune needs to be preserved. Thank you for this!

  • Bob

    This piece was originally performed on the April 23, 2005 Prairie Home Companion show; my wife and I had seats in the second row that night in Town Hall, directly in front of Phil and Aly as they sat performing no more than 8 feet before us. You’ve done a fine job in capturing this beautiful tune.

  • Ken Vines

    Definitely enjoyed “Johnny’s Song!” That’s for sure, McClure! This would have to rank right up there with “Annie’s Song,” “Brian’s Song,” “Lisa’s Song,” “Marty’s Song,” “Frankie’s Song,” and “Song of the South!” In all seriousness, great job on a truly wonderful tune!

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