Saturday, March 17, 2012

Danny Boy The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad by Malachy McCourt

This slim volume endeavors to trace the history and legends behind the haunting Irish ballad, and sort fact from fiction, to unravel ravel its enigmatic origins.

At only two verses, a mere 155 words, "Danny Boy" is one of the most powerful and moving songs of all time. The music, known as the Londonderry Air, or The Derry Air, may have originated in Scotland in the early 1700s and spread to Ireland via itinerant musicians. Some believe it sprang from the bow of a blind fiddler or a roving piper. We do know the melody was first written down in 1851 by Miss Jane Ross, a collector of Irish folksongs and music, living in Limavady. Over the years there were many sets of lyrics composed to fit the Londonderry Air but it wasn't until 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, that an English barrister (lawyer) Frederick Edward Weatherly composed the immortal and enduring words of the song now known and beloved as "Danny Boy." Ironically, for such a tender and touching, soul-stirring song, it was written while he was riding on a crowded commuter train on his way to court. Frederick Edward Weatherly was a very prolific songwriter, it is estimated that he wrote 3,000 songs during his lifetime, but he is best known for "Danny Boy" and "The Roses of Picardy." He was also briefly considered as a Jack the Ripper suspect by conspiracy buffs because of his association with the Maybricks. James Maybrick, alleged author of the notorious and still hotly debated Ripper Diary, was allegedly poisoned by his beautiful American wife Florence, who spent fifteen years in prison for this crime, though many consider this a gross miscarriage of justice. James' brother Stephen was also a songwriter and an associate of Frederick Edward Weatherly.

Another mystery that surrounds "Danny Boy" is who the narrator is, just who is addressing this heartfelt farewell to the departing Danny? Sweetheart, wife, father, mother, sister, brother, parish priest, gay lover? All these theories are explored. Though the most likely, despite how beautifully the song has been sung by men, is that the narrator is Danny's mother. Weatherly was devoted to his mother, who first kindled his love of music, and his entire career, even after she was gone, often imagined her voice singing his songs as he wrote them. And there is good reason why the song can be so effectively sung by either sex, during those days when songwriters depended on royalties from the sale of sheet music, it was in their best interest to compose songs that could be sung by either gender.

Another mystery of the song is just where is Danny going? Off to war? Or is he emigrating to America to make a better life for himself or escape starvation? When their sons emigrated to America, .mothers of the era often held what were known as "American Wakes" because it was very unlikely that s they would ever see their son again. They would either die before he returned to his homeland or he might never return at all.

There is also a chapter that discusses attempts to inject the song with nationalism or military fervor by adding additional verses about dying for Ireland. The author also queries various famous people about what the song means to them including Liam Neeson, Roma Downey, and his own brother, author Frank McCourt.

The book ends with a timeline about the song's history and also a discography, which includes some of the artists who have recorded the song including Mario Lanza (the absolute best in my opinion), Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Elvis Presley (who struggled with the high notes to such an extent that after ten tries he had to record the song singing in a lower key), Sinead O'Connor, Eric Clapton, Conway Twitty, Boxcar Willie, and Bing Crosby.

This was a very interesting little book, though at barely over 100 pages, not counting timeline and discography, it had the feel of a magazine article stretched like taffy to book length.

No comments: