Song Spotlight: “Danny Boy”

  • Mood: Sentimental, Wistful
  • Themes: Ireland, Saying Goodbye, Missing a Loved One, Death
  • Tempo: Slow to moderate
  • Genre/style: Ballad

 

Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org

“Danny Boy” is one of those songs that is at once ubiquitous and mysterious. I’ve been singing this song a lot in the last week for music therapy sessions leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, and two clients reacted in ways that prompted me to do a little more research into this song’s background.

 

The first surprise happened when a client came up to me at the end of a group session at a nursing home and said, “You do know ‘Danny Boy’ is Scottish, don’t you?” I probably looked a little confused and responded that I hadn’t heard that and that I should probably look up more information.

Well, it turns out that this signature Irish song has both Irish and English roots. The melody is definitively Irish – it’s an anonymous folk tune known as “Londonderry Air.” This is the kind of melody that was passed down from generation to generation of Irish fiddle players, and although researchers are relatively certain that it was collected by Jane Ross in the mid-1800s, the origin of the tune is a mystery. You can read all of the fascinating details behind the history of this tune here.

What we do know is that the first set of lyrics to go with this melody were not the familiar words of “Danny Boy” but were rather those of The Confession of Devorgilla,” otherwise known as Oh Shrive Me Father,” which were published in 1814 with a slightly different tune in 3/4 time that eventually morphed into the “Londonderry Air” we know in 4/4 time. There’s another fascinating blog post about the meaning of “Oh Shrive Me Father” from the perspective of a performing musician here. (I have to tell you, I much prefer the “Danny Boy” lyrics.)

So the melody is definitely Irish, but the lyrics to “Danny Boy” are not. They were written by English lawyer and songwriter Frederic Weatherly in 1910, and they were originally set to a different tune.  Weatherly modified the lyrics to fit “Londonderry Air” in 1913, and gave the tune to vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made “Danny Boy” one of the most popular songs of the early 20th century. That song has since been recorded by dozens of musicians, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Andy WilliamsHarry Belafonte, and the Muppets(Do you remember what I said up above about being ubiquitous?) The intended meaning of the lyrics remains rather unclear, too, with some believing it’s about a mother singing to a son going off to war and others thinking it’s about those who emigrated from Ireland during the Famine. One researcher argues that Weatherly was just being a pragmatic songwriter, leaving the lyrics open to interpretation by those who would purchase the sheet music. Here are Weatherly’s poetic words:

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 roses falling,
It’s you, it’s 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,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,—
Oh, Danny boy, O Danny boy, I love you so!

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If 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 grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!

That brings us to the second special moment that singing “Danny Boy” prompted in a music therapy session this week. Members of a group at a senior day center requested this song as one of several Irish tunes, and one lady started crying as we sang. The friend sitting next to her comforted her during the music, and she waved me off after the song, signaling to me that she didn’t want to talk about her tears as the session continued. After the session ended, she told me that “Danny Boy” was played at her son’s funeral some time ago, and that it brought back good memories of him as well as grief over his loss. It seemed to me that she both felt sadness and found some comfort in this song. (You can read another post about tears during music therapy sessions here.)

I hadn’t realized that “Danny Boy” was a popular song for funerals, although the topic of the lyrics and the plaintive melody make it seem quite appropriate. Of course, many Irish Americans are also Catholic, and there has been some controversy over whether “Danny Boy,” a secular song, should be allowed at funeral masses. Some dioceses have banned all secular songs, including “Danny Boy,” and others have left the choice up to individual parish priests. Either way, this song may be important to many people who are experiencing grief.

What do you think of “Danny Boy?” Has it been an important song for your community or the people you care for? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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