Todays’ song is a very old Irish version of ‘Danny Boy’.It is a version of the song you will not have heard before as I have changed some of the words and ‘recomposed’ part of the melodic introduction and conclusion of these old Celtic lyrics I recently came across.
‘Danny Boy’ is a ballad set to a traditional Irish melody. In 1913, English songwriter, Frederic Weatherly wrote the lyrics that we know it more commonly by today. He rearranged the lyrics in order to better suit the accompanying melody of ‘Londonderry Air’ after a copy of the tune was sent to him from the US by his sister, Margaret (affectionately known as 'Jess'). Another account talks about his sister-in-law, Margaret, singing him the ‘Londonderry Air’ as he reportedly modified the lyrics of ‘Danny Boy’ to fit the rhyme and meter of the haunting tune.
Jane Ross of Limavady (a market town in County Londonderry) is credited with collecting the melody of "Londonderry Air" in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered. The first recording of the song was by Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1915.
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning and story of ‘Danny Boy’. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to war or an uprising (as suggested by the reference to ‘pipes calling glen to glen’). However, I find the old Gaelic story of the mid-19th century more romantic and plausible. This account deals with a large number of migrants leaving Ireland in search of a more prosperous life overseas, as part of the Irish diaspora (the dispersion of many common people from their original homeland).
As an Irishman born into a rebel Irish family in County Waterford, and whose maternal grandfather was a part of the Irish uprising of the early 20th century, I have always been acquainted with the song, ‘Danny Boy’. It was an Irish song that my mother sung daily as she went about her busy life as a mother of seven children, of which I was her firstborn. Ever since I started my daily singing practice in 2018 and began delving into the background of all the songs I choose to sing (500 songs videoed up to press), I have come across so many wonderful facts I never knew. My love for digging out historical fact and folklore (especially Irish folklore) is only surpassed by my love of a good story.
The very first time I heard a different version of 'Danny Boy' being sung was when I heard the Roy Orbison version that was prefixed by a melody and words I hadn’t heard before. I started to research into the Irish background of the song and came up with a few additional verses that were in a different meter and tune than the more common version of ‘Danny Boy’ which most of us have come to know. As I had no sheet music to these words to guide me as to how it sounded (apart from the version of the song sung by Roy Orbison) I decided to re-arrange my own melodic introduction and conclusion of the song (not too dissimilar in overall structure to that which Roy Orbison sung) but different enough in tune and composition to ‘make it genuinely my own restructured version.’ I do hope you enjoy my version, as I have tried to keep to the mid-19th-century background story I unearthed.
One mid-19th-century story (the one I chose to recompose the song around) went as follows. ‘Danny Boy’ was the oldest son of a poor Irish tenant farmer, with a large family who worked the land in Western Ireland. After the ‘Potato Famine’ (1845-49), Ireland experienced the failure of over half of the potato crop by infestation, followed by the loss of 75% of the potato crop for the next seven years. Between one and one and a half million people would die in consequence of this potato blight. With no food or viable means of sustenance, many families emigrated in search of a better life. For those families who had not the means to migrate to more prosperous lands, the eldest males would often travel across the sea so that they could work and send money back to their poor parents and younger siblings who had been left behind.
‘Danny’ was such a boy, who as the oldest son, left both the famine and his family behind him when he left home in search of a more prosperous life. Each year he was away, Danny would recall the vision of his father waving goodbye to him from the top of the hill as he watched his son walk on with heavy heart. Both father and son cried out their loss at their point of separation, but neither knew the pain each endured Danny crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America, where he found gainful employment and a better way of life in the steelworks of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Each year he was away from home, Danny told his parents by letter that he would return when he’d made his fortune, but each year passed and turned into yet another year of broken promises. One year away from home turned into two years, then five, then ten years, and then seventeen years with nought but a monthly letter informing Danny about the changes taking place back home. Each year Danny promised he would return home the following year to see his parents, and although his intent to do so remained earnest, he didn’t want to return to Ireland with insufficient savings and capital to buy his parents their own humble homestead. Even when his dear mother wrote to Danny and told him about his daddy’s failing health, Danny still watched another year pass by.
When at last Danny could stay away no longer and he returned home, he found his poor mother widowed and the remainder of his six siblings scattered across the globe, except for his younger sister who’d stayed behind with her mammy. His mammy was now an older woman and in deteriorating health. Danny enquires about the gravesite of his dearly departed daddy and his mother informs him that his father had left instructions to be buried in the hillside spot, beyond the meadow, in the precise place he stood as he waved his oldest boy ‘goodbye'.
Danny goes out to the hillside where the body of his deceased father lies in a piece of hallowed ground, where his widow placed a bunch of wildflowers weekly. The site is marked with a boulder with the name, birth and death of Danny’s father chiselled on its centre. Danny visits the spot where his father now lies; the precise spot where his daddy had waved him off on his journey to Pittsburgh as ‘Danny Boy’ disappeared into the distance of greater prosperity an uncertain destiny.
This is the kernel of the story about ‘Danny Boy’, around which I have woven my composition of this beautiful song; a song that brings back my own fond memories of my own dear mother and father the morning I left home for Canada at the age of 21 years. I will never forget that silent handshake my father gave me with tears in his eyes, before he went off to work the morning I emigrated to Canada in the December of 1963; nor the last image of my mother through the frosted glass of the front window as she cried bitterly that her firstborn was leaving home and feared that she may never see me again. Unlike 'Danny Boy', however, 'Billy Boy' returned home two years later while my parents remained in good health.I do hope that you enjoy my version of this beautiful song.
I dedicate today’s song to my Facebook friends, Ann and Tom Rhodes from Cleckheaton. Ann and Tom also have Irish family connections. This lovely couple exemplifies all that a good marriage is meant to be about, and they restore a belief in the continued existence of concepts like unqualified love, a duty to one another, and compassion to all. Born to be parents, Ann and Tom have always filled their roles with a naturalness that they have since transferred to their roles as loving grandparents. They have enough personal hardships to bear that might give them legitimate cause to complain were they the type to do so, but instead of moaning and moping about in a depressive whirlpool of negativity, they have always made the best of what they have and the most of what they share together. Their life together and the unselfish love they have always displayed for each other represents the heart and soul of a lifelong, loving relationship. Thank you, Ann and Tom, for being my Facebook friend. Love Bill and Sheila x
Love and peace Bill xxx