Shetland Arts has been attacked for appearing to drop Peerie Willie Johnson’s name from the guitar festival staged in his honour.
Adverts for the eighth annual event which starts today make no mention of the legendary guitarist who died in 2007, aged 86.
The omission has annoyed Peerie Willie’s sister, Evelyn Leask, who says she is entrusted with protecting the legacy of the man who pioneered his own jazz-influenced style for accompanying Shetland fiddle.
She said this week she was “totally disgusted” by what she saw as the “petty and thoroughly underhanded manner” in which it seemed he had been erased from his own festival.
In a letter to The Shetland Times Mrs Leask wrote: “The logo of the guitar festival bearing his name is displayed on the memorial to him erected at Bouster in Yell, his birthplace. Yet this festival no longer carries his name and is now the Shetland Guitar Festival. I can only wonder why the arts trust who were so eager in the beginning in using his name for the festival has so abruptly dropped it.”
When asked about her involvement in Shetland Arts’ plans for this weekend’s event she said the organisation had not been in touch at all. “I have had nothing!” she said. “If they can’t be bothered to contact me I thought I would just go in the paper.”
In the first adverts displaying the dates for this year’s festival, which were published at the end of last year, it was billed as the Peerie Willie Shetland Guitar Festival. But on more recent ads his name no longer appears.
This weekend’s festival is reduced in scale from previous years with just two guitarists billed to appear, Aziz Ibrahim and Stuart McCallum, both travelling from elsewhere in the UK. They are highly innovative musicians who take a very modern and diverse approach to guitar performance.
Mrs Leask is not alone in wondering why reference to Peerie Willie has been omitted, whether deliberately or by mistake. A few eyebrows have been raised locally in recent weeks and, it seems, outwith Shetland too. Orcadian guitar-player and regular visitor Ingirid Jolly said she was “dismayed and concerned” that the festival’s title had changed.
In her letter to the paper she said she hoped nothing “political” lay behind the decision. Mrs Leask said the letter had no connection to hers.
Challenged about the perceived slight on Peerie Willie’s memory, Shetland Arts head of development Kathy Hubbard gave an assurance that he was still central to the festival.
She said on Wednesday: “He’s still a real presence to us and it will always have been inspired by him and it will always be dedicated to his memory.”
Mrs Hubbard said Peerie Willie’s inspiration for “The Shetland Guitar Festival” was obvious from content on the websites of Shetland Arts and Mareel. Indeed, both sites do contain pages explaining Peerie Willie’s place in the guitar event.
But it is understandable how people might be confused about the title of the event. The Shetland Arts website has sections entitled both The Shetland Guitar Festival and The Peerie Willie Guitar Festival 2012.
Mrs Hubbard reiterated Peerie Willie’s continuing importance to the festival: “His name is invoked and his memory is honoured at each of the events. We always, when introducing the concerts or the workshops say: ‘As you are all aware this festival is inspired by and dedicated to his memory’. As far as we’re concerned he’s still a very real and abiding presence at the festival even if his name doesn’t appear in the title.”
Asked explicitly if there had been a decision by the agency’s managers or board of trustees to drop the name, she said: “Not that I’ve been made aware of.”
Yesterday, the festival organiser Bryan Peterson, who is Shetland Arts’ music development officer, said he was “vexed and surprised” to learn of the concerns through the press. “If Evelyn had actually got in contact with us first and raised these concerns I would have been more than happy to have discussed it and taken appropriate action.”
Mrs Leask also hit out at the absence of Shetland guitarists at this weekend’s event. She said showcasing local players was meant to be a core part of the event.
She has complained about the lack of emphasis on local talent before. Indeed, she and Shetland Arts have had differences of opinion about the operation of the festival over the years but she insisted she had nothing against the arts agency.
When the festival started in 2005 the then music development officer Davie Gardner said the initial ambition of the festival was “to celebrate and develop guitar music in Shetland and to further recognise Willie, its greatest-ever local exponent”.
Last year a Shetland concert showcased some of the islands’ guitar greats, including Norman “Girsie” Goudie, Brian Nicholson and Alan McKay.
Mrs Hubbard said that although no local guitarists are getting the chance to perform this year they can take part in a workshop on Saturday afternoon in Mareel, which includes a session on guitar technique.
Four local musicians will be up on stage on Saturday during the concert in Mareel with the two visiting guitarists, albeit none of the locals will be wielding guitars. They are Norman Wilmore on tenor sax, Hayden Hook on double bass and cello, Max Tyler on trumpet and piano and Martha Thompson on violin.
Over the years the festival has seen some star guitarists, including Eduardo Niebla, Lulo Reinhardt and JP Cormier. Another was Shetlander Ian Bairnson, the former Pilot member who has since played with The Alan Parsons Project and been in much demand as a session musician. He grew up in Levenwick and was heavily influenced by Peerie Willie, who lived over the hill at Bigton during the 1960s.
The inaugural event in 2005 was billed The First Peerie Willie Johnson Guitar Festival. On stage the English folk guitarist Martin Taylor, who is patron of the festival, said if Peerie Willie had been born in America “he would be a national icon”.
Ironically, his name is being heard around the world once again this week for a completely different reason – the untimely death of the great Scottish singer-songwriter Michael Marra, aged just 60. He wrote a song Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson about the US radio station whose music had such a strong influence on Willie and many other Shetland musicians when they were young. Marra’s song written after meeting Willie has been posted all over Facebook, YouTube and other internet sites in his memory.
Mrs Leask lived in Australia for many years before coming back and helping look after Peerie Willie in his last years. She said she had experienced “quite a time” because of people’s reactions towards her protecting her brother’s legacy.
Whatever the rights and wrongs it is clear that there is considerable ill-feeling between different factions who were involved with Peerie Willie when he was alive.
For her part, Mrs Leask said: “It’s not easy to be the closest living relative of a music legend.”