Danny Boy

  Jerome Shea       May 11, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Perhaps the best part of my rediscovery of Paul Robeson was listening to his rendition of “Danny Boy.” “I guess it’s not just for tenors anymore,” I mused. We all feel, I think, that Irish tenors have a lock on that perennial favorite. Not so. Basses have sung it. Groups have sung it. Women have sung it—in fact, the man responsible for “Danny Boy” assumed that the singer would be a woman; he even substituted “Eily Dear,” for “Danny Boy,” to accommodate male singers. But these confusions are only a small part of that remarkable song.

In so many ways it is not what it seems.

For one thing, although the haunting melody is probably Irish and centuries old, the lyrics are not. The lyricist—my old Irish heart cringes—was an Englishman! Frederick Weatherly (1848-1929) was a barrister by vocation but a veritable songwriting machine by avocation. He wrote thousands of songs. Some, like “Roses of Picardy,” did well, but “Danny Boy” towers over them all. He first wrote words and music in 1910. That “Danny Boy” was a non-starter. Then, the story goes, his sister-in-law in America sent him the music for “A Londonderry Air,” (or, as wags have it, “London Derriere”). Weatherly had never heard it before but he quickly saw that the words and music were an almost perfect fit. A classic was born.

So we have an authentic (or so most authorities think: nothing is ever settled in these matters) Irish melody with lyrics supplied by an Englishman who, according to dueling sources, either was a frequent visitor to Ireland or never set foot there. Nevertheless, the Irish immediately claimed the song as their own. Well, that’s not true either: there are people on the “ould sod” who have never heard it or heard of it! The ones who did claim the song as their own, as fervently as only expatriates can, were the Irish in America. That’s why many consider it not Irish so much as Irish-American, which is closer to the truth. I have even heard some say that Weatherly was an American. Perhaps they are confusing him with his sister-in-law.

When you think of the Irish in America, you think of two things: “Danny Boy” and St. Patrick’s Day, both of which we throw ourselves into whole-heartedly (some might say maniacally, green beer and all). This is a day when wretched excess rules. Recently, a sort of backlash has begun (good humored, one hopes). One pub owner in New York City has banned the singing of “Danny Boy” on his premises, at least on St. Patty’s Day, when the boys are most inclined to cut loose. “It’s more appropriate for a funeral than for a celebration,” says Shaun Clancy, himself an Irish immigrant, adding that it ranks among “the 25 most depressing songs of all time.” Lachrymose it certainly is. I can easily imagine that that’s where the expression “crying in your beer” came from. Depressing it may be, but beautiful it is, too. So another argument Clancy offers is that he is sick of hearing it butchered by the boyos after they have belted back a few Bushmills. That one I can agree with. As to its being depressing, haven’t we always seen the Irish as championing “happy wars and sad love songs”?

And just what is the song about (because it’s not just a song but a sketch of a story)? Who is this Danny Boy and where is he off to? And who is singing to him? Some assume that, in typical Irish fashion (see above, “happy wars”), he is off to battle. But there is nothing to suggest, as surely there should be, that he might not come back, that he might die for Ireland in glorious battle. Some have suggested that he is escaping the potato famine of the 1840s. But if it is his mother who is singing, what sort of blackguard would leave his own mother behind to starve? Weatherly left few clues, and some suggest that “Danny Boy” is simply a lament for archetypal loss. And in truth, the where or the why doesn’t matter so much as the going. The outlines are there and you can color them in yourself.

And is it his mother singing? That was always my assumption and seems to have been Weatherly’s. In fact, the more I listen to the traditional tenor’s rendition, the more do unworthy thoughts of the homoerotic seem to slip in. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) Oh, and that business about lying six feet under and hearing all the traffic and voices up top? That really creeps me out sometimes. And it’s a real challenge, with that high F (G in the original!) waiting implacably like a judgment. (Of course, that is the note that delivers the chills, too.) It may not be as near-impossible as the “Star Spangled Banner,” but it’s close. But despite its strange provenance, the difficulties of it, the confusions about it, and all the rest, “Danny Boy” is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces ever written, belonging in the very select company of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” “Amazing Grace,” and a couple more that escape me now.

Because right now, my friends, something else is blocking my brain and misting my eyes:

Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside,
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my dreams will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I will sleep in peace until you come to me.

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