One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
“Danny Boy” is a song guaranteed to wring a tear from the misty eyes of most Irish natives, including this one (though, admittedly, there have occasionally been tears of rage shed in this parish over some versions – Cher, anyone?). Such lacrimation is particularly effusive among Irish emigres – again, including this writer – usually at the end of a long night in some foreign hostelry when faraway hills appear exponentially greener and more fertile than they once were. My compatriots and I are nothing if not shameless wool gatherers when there’s drink involved. Mind you, we’re also susceptible to putting our fists up on the slightest pretext. And if you want to take issue with that latter characterization, we can always settle it outside.
Of course, the delicious irony is that “Danny Boy,” for all that it’s something of an unofficial Irish anthem, was penned by, ahem, an Englishman. And so, a potted history.
The provenance of the melody is vague, but it first featured in a book entitled Ancient Music of Ireland by George Petrie in 1855, given to him by collector Jane Ross, It was some 40 years before the name “Londonderry Air” was attached to the piece (cue the tired old parody of the title, “London Derriere”). A detailed examination of Irish melodies by scholar Edward Bunting in 1979 discovered that the tune was related to “Aislean an Oigfear” (“The Young Man’s Dream”), originally collected in 1792 from harpist Denis O’Hampsey. Ninety years old at the time, O’Hampsey had been playing it for years. Almost a hundred attempts were made to apply lyrics, but only one survived.
Frederic Weatherly was an eminent lawyer, knew men who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, was acquainted with Charles Dickens, and declined an offer from the King of Siam to tutor the Crown Prince in Bangkok. He had a lifelong interest in writing lyrics, and had published around 1,500 works, among them “The Holy City” and “Roses of Picardy.” When, just after the turn of the 20th century, his sister-in-law sent him the manuscript of “Londonderry Air,” Weatherly dug out an existing composition of his, “Danny Boy,” penned several years before. According to Max Cryer in Love Me Tender: The Stories Behind the World’s Best-Loved Songs:
[H]e tentatively tried his lyrics with it. Good fortune followed good luck; with only small modifications, the words and music seemed made for each other. The combination was published in 1913…. “Danny Boy” rapidly caught the attention of Irish people in all parts of the world. Miraculously, it evoked no hint of the geographical, religious or political abrasiveness that sometimes affects Irish sensibilities. “Danny Boy” belonged to all the Irish.
Almost 200 artists made recordings of it, years before recording went electric, a testament to the song’s irresistible power. Countless others put their stamp on “Danny Boy” in the following decades, from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to Sinead O’Connor and Diana Krall. It was played at the interments of Presley, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana of Wales.
The saccharine stench of mawkishness attaches itself to so many readings of “Danny Boy” – easily done, given the lachrymosity of the lyric – but few have grasped the intense grief of Weatherly’s words. Ostensibly, the protagonist is mourning a gone lover, but really, death haunts every line – “pipes are calling,” “flowers are dying,” “summer’s gone” – in what amounts to a reckoning with mortality.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Ireland’s finest folk singer bar none, Christy Moore, nailed it in his haunted (and haunting) rendition on the 1993 Real World album Lament, a project conceived to commemorate in music those lives lost in the euphemistically labelled “Troubles” that brutalized Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement was forged in 1998.
As producer Brian Masterson wrote in the liner notes, “Great music has the power to lay bare the soul and arouse in the listener great depths of feeling, and in the Irish tradition the lament has evolved as a music that speaks of sadness and loss. It seemed, therefore, to be the music that could express the very essence of the tragedy that occurs daily in our land.”
The criteria of sadness and loss certainly abound in “Danny Boy.” This is not party music, however incongruous its popularity at weddings and on other celebratory occasions. But then, there has always been a thin line in our culture between joy and despair. Indeed, Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin captures this dichotomy brilliantly, even if his script – and particularly Brendan Gleeson’s character Colm Doherty – tilts more towards despair on the psychological swing meter. Oh, what a fatalistic lot we are.
Moore’s “Danny Boy” is shot through with this sense of fatalism. He eschews the cloying sentimentality favored by other interpretations, transforming the song into a sort of minimalist requiem – a requiem not just for unrequited love or for relinquished country, but for those ghosts of Irish history, all those famine dead, all those revolutionary dead. The spare, ambient production is helmed by the sole accompaniment of a bodhran (pronounced bow-rawn, a frame drum tacked on one side with goatskin, which legendary Irish composer Sean O’Riada claimed was the ancient Celts’ percussion of choice – a claim disputed by several constituencies of contemporary opinion, who insist it evolved from the tambourine in the mid-19th century), the polyphonic tracking of Moore’s voice making him sound, somewhat spookily, like a chorus of desolate banshees. And yes, I know, the banshee is a female spirit in Irish folklore, but I’m pretty sure the metaphysical realm allows for gender fluidity. Moore scats (in the singular trad Irish vernacular) rather than sings the first two verses, impelled by an insistent, mesmeric rhythm. This shifts to a slower tempo on the third verse, Moore’s stoic recitation all the more powerful for the deliberate manner of its delivery, particularly the repetition of the line “Until you come to me,” on which he emphasizes “you” ominously, before the whole thing comes to a sudden close. Like life itself.
We Irish have a relationship with death that leans into the pragmatic. Emotion is often abstracted with the precision of the surgical removal of a bodily organ, a kind of faux sanguinity replacing the scalpel. Another irony, don’t you think, in the context of those overwrought readings of “Danny Boy”? Moore rejects this attitude, unafraid to venture into troubled – and troubling – terrain. So, in his redoubtable hands, “Danny Boy” is both an Irish song, and yet not an Irish song at all; a love song, and yet not a love song at all. Just a song heavy with foreboding, the kind of foreboding that possesses each of us. That death really is the end.