The Origins of the “Irish” Ballad, “Danny Boy”

a2303-1-72dpi.jpga2303-4-150dpi.jpgOkay, I admit it. “Danny Boy” is one of my favorite songs, but it is not because I am Irish (which I am, for I have strong Irish roots in my ancestral tree). I simply think that the melody of “Londonderry Air” is one that reaches into a person’s soul. Moreover, I have a half-brother named “Danny,” so it strikes a chord in that manner. 

That being said, a March 2017 article on Irish Central says “Danny Boy” is NOT an Irish tune. “In 2001, the Irish-American actor and writer Malachy McCourt took it upon himself to unravel the mystery of perhaps the most popular Irish song ever in his book ‘Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad.'”

Frederic_Weatherly_from_Lute_(April_1895).jpg First off, “Danny Boy” was written by an English lawyer and lyricist in 1910. Frederic Weatherly is estimated to have written the lyrics to at least 3,000 popular songs, among the best-known of which are the sentimental ballad “Danny Boy” set to the tune “Londonderry Air,” the religious “The Holy City,” and the wartime song “Roses of Picardy.” “The Holy City,” written in 1892 to music by the British composer Stephen Adams. The song includes the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!.” He wrote the song  while living in Bath in 1910. However, “the words were right but the tune was wrong, which is where Weatherly’s sister-in-law, Margaret Weatherly, comes in. Margaret Weatherly was an Irish immigrant who sailed to America with Fred Weatherly’s brother in search of silver in Colorado.  It was on a trip back to England in 1912 that Margaret Weatherly introduced Fred Weatherly to the ancient Irish melody, ‘The Londonderry Aire.'” (Surprising Origins of 100-year-old “Danny Boy”) The tune matched his lyrics almost perfectly. He published the now-famous song in 1913. His ballad “Roses of Picardy,” written in 1916 and set to music by Haydn Wood, was one of the most famous songs from World War I. 

Of his huge output of songs, Weatherly listed a selection of 61 titles in his Who’s Who entry. In addition to the above, they were: “Nancy Lee”; “The Midshipmite”; “Polly”; “They all love Jack”; “Jack’s Yarn”; “The Old Brigade”; “The Deathless Army”; “To the Front”; “John Bull”; “Darby and Joan”; “When We are Old and Grey”; “Auntie”; “The Chimney Corner”; “The Children’s Home”; “The Old Maids of Lee”; “The Men of Ware”; “The Devoted Apple”; “To-morrow will be Friday”; “Douglas Gordon”; “Sleeping Tide”; “The Star of Bethlehem”; “Beauty’s Eyes”; “In Sweet September”; “Bid me Good-bye”; “The Last Watch”; “London Bridge”; “The King’s Highway”; “Go to Sea”; “Veteran’s Song”; “Up from Somerset”; “Beyond the Dawn”; “Nirvana”; “Mifanwy”; “Sergeant of the Line”; “Stone-cracker John”; “Ailsa Mine”; “Old Black Mare”; “Coolan Dhu”; “Three for Jack”; “Bhoy I Love”; “The Blue Dragoons”; “At Santa Barbara”; “The Grenadier”; “Reuben Ranzo”; “Dinder Courtship”; “Friend o’Mine”; “When You Come Home”; “Little Road Home”; “Greenhills of Somerset”; “Danny Boy”; “As you pass by”; “Ships of my dreams”; “Why shouldn’t I?”; “When Noah Went-a-sailing”; “Time to go”; “Chumleigh Fair”; “Our Little Home”; “The Bristol Pageant, Music Composed by Hubert Hunt in 1924” and “Little Lady of the Moon.” (Frederic Weatherly)

Yet, I have digressed. “In the hands of the Limerick-born author-actor [McCourt], the musical story of “Danny Boy” has its roots way back in the terrible 1690 siege of Derry in Northern Ireland, and its colorful cast of characters includes Charles Dickens’ son and a Jack the Ripper suspect. In his quest to unravel the mystery, McCourt enlisted poet Seamus Heaney, actress Roma Downey, and even his Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Frank, to explain “Danny Boy”‘s enduring appeal. McCourt distorts everything we previously believed of our beloved song revealing that “Danny Boy” is not even a completely original song but a version among the 100s of different lyrics set to the tune of the “Derry Air.” The original air is believed by some to date back to Rory Dall O’Cahan, an Irish harpist who lived in Scotland in the late 17th century. Weatherly gave the song to the English opera singer Elsie Grffin, who introduced the song to a wider audience. The first recording was made in 1915 by the German vocalist Ernestine Schumann-Heink.” (Irish Central)

Check out The Story of the Song Danny Boy on You Tube HERE.

From a CBS News Article in March 2013, we learn…

“Fred Weatherly fused that haunting melody with his heavy-hearted words and something magical happened. “Danny Boy” became a hit. 

“He meant for it to be popular, he meant for it to be universal,” said music journalist Andrew Mueller. “There’s a very careful avoidance of specifics.”

“Mueller told CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata that world events were about to lend the song a terrible resonance. 

“One hesitates to call the first World War a stroke of luck, but I think for any work of art to endure it needs a stroke of luck and his lyrics for “Danny Boy” were published in 1913, a year before millions of people were finding themselves having to say goodbye to people who they hoped against hope that they might one day see again,” he said.  

“The theme of longing also struck a chord with many Irish emigrants who headed to America to escape the famine back home. Through the decades, the song became woven into the cultural fabric of the U.S. and beyond, often as a final farewell. 

“Elvis said he thought “Danny Boy” was written by angels and asked for it to be played at his funeral.  At Princess Diana’s church service, the words were different, but the haunting melody of “The Londonderry Aire,” the same.

“And after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the strains of “Danny Boy” rose from the memorial services of so many Irish-American police and firefighters who were among the victims.

“It’s not just the notion of loss, but of someday being reunited, that’s one of the reasons “Danny Boy” has never gone away.”

Celtic Women’s Version 

The Irish Tenors Version 

Caitlin Heaney Version

Oh Danny boy the pipes the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone and all the flowers dying
‘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 roses falling
And I am dead as dead I well may be
Go out and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an ave there for me
And I will hear tho’ soft you tread above me
And then my grave will warm and sweeter be
For you shall bend and tell me that you love me
And I will sleep in peace until you come to me

 

Advertisements

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in ballads, British history, customs and tradiitons, England, history, Ireland, music, tradtions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Origins of the “Irish” Ballad, “Danny Boy”

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Love the history of this song. I’ve heard the melody adapted for hymns as well. An arrangement by Jay Althouse is on the Group 1 solo/ensemble list for State contest in Indiana. The kids really love singing this song. Thanks, jen

    • The bit about the solo/ensemble list is interesting, Jen. It been many a year since I looked at such things. As a theatre teacher, I was always interested in what was chosen for different voices. One never knows what one will get when holding auditions for a musical production.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s