Entry for Peerie Willie in Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies

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The late Shetland musician Peerie Willie Johnson has been entered into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies (ODNB).

His entry will be included in the section for deaths in 2007, which will be available online through Shetland Library’s subscription.

The ODNB is a collection of over 54,000 specially written biographies of people who have in some way shaped Britain’s history.

At over 200 years old, the list of people included is endless and given the amount of entries the publishers receive each year for consideration, to gain entry is no mean feat.

Peerie Willie’s biograpy was written by journalist Ken Hunt, who also wrote the guitarist’s obituary for The Guardian newspaper.

Mr Hunt is a writer and broadcaster of music, who also works freelance for the Oxford University Press.

In his capacity as a journalist he had written about Peerie Willie before, but has another connection to the man which initially led him to writing his obituary.

Mr Hunt’s father was in the RAF and based at Sullom Voe at the same time as Willie, and as a fellow musician in the base’s dance band, playing clarinet, alto sax, the two would often jam together.

Mr Hunt said: “I felt an affinity across the years when I wrote Peerie Willie’s obituary for The Guardian. Him being on the RAF airbase around the same time as my dad was the dance band’s saxophonist and arranger, how couldn’t it chime?

“As I wrote about him, memories of my father’s anecdotes flooded back. Like the band scrambling down cliffs between raids to get gulls’ eggs to supplement their RAF rations and one time a crippled torpedo plane crashed on landing and blew up.

“Peerie Willie Johnson’s was a very personal obituary for me. I joined many dots after he died. I knew his music on the Topic label and with the Boys of the Lough and Aly Bain but I had never had need to connect him and my father before.”

Biographies included in the ODNB are often those that, in the past, would have gone unnoticed or would have been deliberately ignored on class or cultural grounds.
Peerie Willie’s music, while having a huge impact on Shetland, has clearly also touched those from outwith the islands.

Mr Hunt said: “I melted when I heard Peerie Willie’s recordings with the fiddler Debbie Scott on The Selkies’ Song album that Owen Tierney recorded. Peerie Willie’s music did more than island hop: it travelled and transported.”

He said he had “loved” writing about Peerie Willie: “His is a story anyone can engage with – and here I must pay tribute to his sister Evelyn because she filled in so many gaps in her brother’s life.

“The way he interconnected with people, brought people on and acted as mentor or foil to people is remarkable.”

He added: “Peerie Willie Johnson was a hero of the benignest kind and I am truly delighted that he got in.”

For more information contact the Shetland library, or go to www.shetland-library.gov.uk. The ODNB can be found at www.oxforddnb.com


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