This song is pretty much a secular anthem for the Irish, but it has a fascinating history. The tune is an ancient traditional tune, Londonderry Air, which I always thought was a rather strange title, London derriere, which annoys Irish people no end, but it’s not my fault it’s a mondegreen.
It is said the tune was first transcribed in Livervadie by Jane Ross who was captivated when she heard a blind fiddler Jimmy McCuring playing so paid him to play it over and over so she could transcribe it. The tune is quite unusual, it floats, with alternating major and minor chords, each phrase has an arch to it, like the sun coming out and then receding behind a cloud, so is very emotional..
The lyrics were written by a Portishead-born solicitor in Bath, Fred Weatherly who was a prolific author of over 1,000 pieces of poetry, novels and childrens’ books, as well as the World War I song Roses of Picardy. He was visited by his brother and sister in law from Colorado; she had grown up with her father’s Irish airs, with Londonderry being one of them. Weatherley always maintained she sent him the tune, but she claimed she sang it to him and he realised that was the tune he was looking for , so got her to sing it to him repeatedly. He knew as soon as he heard it he had a hit, and she spent the rest of her days resenting his failure to acknowledge her contribution, especially as she died an impoverished widow, ignored by her brother in law.
The song was published in 1910, and was an immediate hit, with the lyrics intriguing with its deliberately ambiguous lyrics. They are about loss and reunion, so fitted well with the young men being sent off to fight in the war, on a par with the other Irish song, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ which both tapped into the tradition of impoverished Irish having to go away in search of work. .The song is not sentimental, though the lyrics suggest it should be. Elsie Griffin sang it to entertain troops in France, and became popular in music halls and was often recorded. Over 200,000 Irish troops returned from the war singing it, and was often sung during the Easter Rising for Irish independence in 1916. It was not political, but could be read as such. When the rebels were hanged, the song was sung as a craving for freedom. Yeats wrote of ‘a terrible beauty is born’ The Irish added a 3rd verse to it which made it specific for the time and place.
By the 1920s the song had reached the USA, with the ongoing flow of Irish immigrants, and found a life of its own, in a country awash with immigrants driven by war and/or poverty from their homes in search of a new life. It became a song of unity for the Irish wo began to make their mark in sports and entertainment. Possibly the main source of its spread was the Irish tenor John McCormick, who sang it to full stadium concerts. In 1940s Hollywood Deanna Durbin sang it to Charles Laughton to demonstrate how genuine she was, so by then it had broken free of its Irish roots, to become a standard in its own right, but still linked with nostalgia, homesickness, and honesty, as well as a testing ground for singers – its deceptively easy range gradually building to a surprise high note, so singers had to beware which key they chose to avoid overreaching themselves. It was taken on by the big jazz orchestras, with various harmonically arranged versions. Black Americans connected with its melancholy and sense of hope, which was so close to the blues. Harry Belafonte did a version in the late 1950s, as a song for those who stayed and those who left. It was taken up by the Rhythm & Blues, teasing out yet another side, that of slow dancing, with a version by Jackie Wilson.. Which brought it back from the old folks reminiscing to a song for the youth. Then Elvis covered it, just after his mother died, and he was sent abroad with the army, so he was living the song’s contents. To him it was a song about home, love, family. It was more a hymn. The song drifted round the Appalachians, with Johnny Cash doing a version in the 60s, reflecting the turbulent times and also his difficult relationship with his father. Rosanne Cash spoke of how he glimpsed the dark shadows flickering across the face of the song, which connected it with songs of the deep south. .
Meanwhile, the troubles in Ireland continued, with violence between the Protestants and Catholics, both of whom claimed it as their own. Everyone has a drunk uncle who tries to sing it at weddings, and it became the standard song to signal the end of the evening.
The boxer Barry McGuigan lived on the border of the Republic, but had a lot of friends on both sides of the border, so has been one of the great ambassadors for peace. When he had to choose a song fro his world championship fight, he chose Danny Boy, sung by his father, which reduced the crowd to tears. Usually National anthems were played, but he wanted a song to unite the two nations, and made a very powerful statement for peace in the process. Seamus Heaney spoke of how ‘there was one among us who stood taller than the best’
Danny Boy has been called the greatest ballad ever written, you can wrap the melody around anything, with its melancholy balanced with uplift.
In the 1990s it was even taken up by New York Hip hop, and there was even a version invoking an Irish gay construction worker.
It has been used widely in films, a universal marker to show Irishness, or melancholy. In the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing, Gabriel Byrne spoke of how the song was brilliantly cut with a very violent scene, and how well it worked, as the song was so well known, the contrasts within the song worked well with the beauty and violent slo mo of the scene. .
By the end of the 20th century it had become a secular hymn. Played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, also those of JFK and Caroll O’Connor.
But some people found they’d had enough. In June 2001 the archdiocese of New York banned secular songs at funerals, just before 9/11 but the song was so embedded, especially in the heavily Irish community of New York fire fighters and police, so this ban was ignored. One commentator claimed that sacred music is what a mother sings to her children. Danny Boy said more than the sacred music about their pain and loss.
Fred Weatherley published his autobiography in 1926 and died in 1929 a rich man. Ths roprano Clara Butt unveiled a plaque on his former home in Bath. But his sister in law who had given him the tune had become a widow in the Great Depression, and was bitter that she was never acknowledged, nor helped financially by him. She had no legal claim to the song, but she did have a strong moral claim. She died penniless in 1939.
In 2013 Derry/Londonderry celebrated their centenary with a mass singalong in Guildhall Square. They spoke of the song coming home, of them reclaiming it. This is the only part of the story that I have trouble with. The song, it is true, is of Irish origin, but it was a tune that had been kicking around for centuries with nobody finding a use for it. Weatherley wrote the lyrics and saw the tune’s potential, which makes the song at least half English, ie the great oppressors of the Irish. If it had not been released just before the First World War, it probably would have become just another music hall tune. It ubiquity is in part due to the large number of people who can connect with the ideas of departure and homesickness, many of them poor, and in the States, the black and Jewish populations have also had a significant hand in its ubiquity. So the notion that it is an Irish song is only partial. Like many popular songs, it is like a balloon – it has long since lost its connections with its origin. It is a song for everyone.
As a coda to this account, I heard the documentary in the library, then went to the market, and heard an old black man launch into the song as I entered, then I ran into a guy from Belfast I hadn’t seen for ages. A coincidence, or the magic of music?
I also have a memory from back when I worked as a temp in Bristol that there is a solicitors office with a framed notice on the wall claiming that Weatherley used to work there, which makes sense as he lived in Bristol for a time, and also that he was a descendant of Charles Dickens, but I can’t find a reference to this.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the lyrics really don’t make any sense – who goes away in autumn? If the pipes refer to a battle, this makes no sense as winter is when battles are put on hold, as transport is too hard and, well, sumer is when eveyrthng used to happen. who is the singer? A other, a lover? The vagueness is part of its strength which allows it to apply to almost anything.
Here’s Andy Williams with his version of it, an aerican of Welsh descent with a ruined church behind him, but not sure why.