One of my mam Peggy’s favourite songs was “Danny Boy”. I remember it was one of her party pieces and can still hear her soft voice singing it. I think that it reminded her of her time as an emigrant in Leeds and Cardiff in the late 1940s. It also reminded her of her younger brother, Danny, who worked laying gas-pipes in the UK. I too love “Danny Boy”. Nowadays. But there was a time in the 1980s when I dreaded it.
You see, I got a Stylophone as a gift one Christmas. For those too young to remember, the iconic gadget Stylophone was a pocket-sized battery-operated synthesiser used by everyone from David Bowie to The White Stripes. You played it by tapping and sliding the connected stylus along the touch-sensitive metal surface. Each segment on the surface played a different note, the same as different keys on a piano. But unlike the piano, it was so simple to play that anyone could have a go - perfect for beginners! Like me!
Now, I’m no David Bowie, but to please Peggy, one of the first tunes I learned on it was “Danny Boy”. To my teenage mortification, she insisted I play it for any visitors to the house. With lots of requests for “one more time”!! I even remember the late Paddy Farrell being obliged to listen as he was delivering our weekly box of messages (groceries) one Saturday morning.
Anyway, in this week’s blog, I delve into the origins of “Danny Boy”. I also have a link to the late Eva Cassidy’s beautiful rendition of it. I think Peggy would be delighted. If there are harps in heaven, I’ve no doubt she has some poor angel pestered to play “Danny Boy” … one more time! Enjoy!
This year marks 110 years since the song "Danny Boy" first weaved its way into Irish hearts. It’s a ballad that has proved irresistible to some of the biggest names in music who have recorded it as a song of love and loss - a lament for those missing home and each other.
The words to “Danny Boy” which resonates with Irish people worldwide were written … by an Englishman. That Englishman was Fred Weatherly, a prolific songwriter - and later successful lawyer - who published 1,500 songs. At first “Danny Boy” wasn’t a hit. The words were right but the tune was wrong, which is where Fred'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 Derry Air”. Fred Weatherly then combined the haunting melody with his emotive words and something magical happened. “Danny Boy” became a hit when published in 1913.
Here's the "Derry Air" without words as played by Phil Coulter from YouTube:
When war broke out a year late, there were millions of people finding themselves having to say goodbye to people who they hoped against hope to see again one day. That theme of longing also struck a chord with many Irish emigrants who headed to America and elsewhere to seek a better life than that offered back home. Through the decades, the song became woven into the cultural fabric of the U.S. and beyond, often as a final farewell.
There are a few theories about the origins of ‘The Derry Air’, but the most popular one states that in 1851, a woman called Jane Ross heard an unnamed fiddler playing it in Limavady, Northern Ireland. Ross asked if she could transcribe the music for her friend in Dublin, who was trying to preserve the ancient music of Ireland. The fiddler, whose name has sadly been lost in the annals of time, agreed.
‘Danny Boy’ is well known now throughout the world and has been recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Mario Lanza and Eva Cassidy; the latter being one of my favourites:
Its emotional strains have also lent the song poignantly to funerals and memorial services. Elvis once 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 Derry Air” remained the same. And after the shocking events of 9/11, the strains of “Danny Boy” rose from the memorial services of the many Irish-American police and firefighters who were among the victims.
Opera star Renée Fleming sang it at the memorial service for late US Senator John McCain in September 2018 at Washington National Cathedral, in a nod to his Irish ancestry. This is a very sad version:
But for all of the sadness surrounding the song, I actually think that the underlying universal theme is of hope. Hope of someday being reunited. That's the main reason “Danny Boy” will continue to be played for at least another 110 years!!
So, I’ll leave you with the words in the version of "Danny Boy" that my late mother Peggy sang:
Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside,
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 if ye come when all the flowers are dying,
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Please come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me;
And I will hear, though soft you tread above me,
And then 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!
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!
Bucket List Items Ticked Off in the above Blog post 105
Number 49 - Skills - Learn to Play a Musical Instrument
Other Blog Posts
Blog 11 - Sydney, Australia
Blog 12 - Hong Kong, China
Blog 17 - Beijing, Xi'an & Shanghai, China
Blog 19 - California, USA
Blog 27 - Scotland
Blog 28 - Barbados
Blog 29 - Canada
Have you ever played a Stylophone? Tell me about your experience in the comments section below.
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My name is Mary and this is my bucket list blog ...having survived a near-death experience. I hope it encourages you to "live your best life". See how I'm completing my own bucket list items. And let me know how you're getting on with yours!