His name may be permanently prefixed with the Shetland dialect word for “small”, in reference to his diminutive physical stature, but as a guitarist, Willie Johnson has long been revered as an international giant.
When the great Dundee bard Michael Marra penned his song, “Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson”, he immortalised a long-ago concurrence of people, places and music, across thousands of miles, that changed the face of folk guitar-playing forever. In the late 1920s, when Willie was still just a teenager, Shetland fiddle legend Tom Anderson – later to become Willie’s primary musical confrère – took a correspondence course in building radios, and began selling them around the islands. Tuning in on short-wave to early US jazz broadcasts (often beamed live from Schenectady, NY, where one of the stations was based), Willie first encountered the groundbreaking sounds of guitarists Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, whose respective partnerships with violinists Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli helped spur his interest in adapting their approach to Shetland’s fiddle music.
In what’s been cited as an early instance of folk “fusion”, Willie began to develop a style of guitar accompaniment which incorporated the colours, syncopations and improvisatory freedoms of jazz, swing and ragtime with the buoyantly rhythmic local “vamping” style of backing the fiddle on piano. It’s become one of the most instantly recognisable signatures in Scottish music, widely copied across both the jazz and folk spheres, and on both sides of the Pond, but never bettered.
Born in Yell, one of Shetland’s northernmost islands, Willie originally began playing as a result of a severe childhood illness, when his mother bought him a ukulele to allay the tedium of convalescence. Soon progressing to the guitar, he began performing with a local band at age fourteen, and in 1936 was invited by Anderson to join, the renowned Islesburgh Dance Band. Over the ensuing half-century, in company with Anderson, Willie toured extensively across Europe and North America, contributed to many notable recordings, packed ‘em in with an annual Edinburgh Festival residency from 1973-1980, and featured in Aly Bain’s pioneering 1980s TV series Down Home. In 2005, his lifetime’s achievements were honoured in Shetland with the launch of the annual Peerie Willie Guitar Festival.
Willie is cited as an inspirational influence by numerous younger musicians, as much for his legendary listening ear and musical generosity as for his stylistic innovations. He’s still to be found frequenting Shetland’s best-known musical hostelry, the Lounge bar in Lerwick, where at his birthday party a few years back, having surveyed the panoply of young women playing in the session, he reportedly took a drag from his cigarette, a hit from his inhaler and declared, “What I wouldn’t give to be seventy again…”