Friday, August 30, 2013

Hoist a pint and sing "Danny Boy" today

Many classical composers celebrate big anniversaries this year: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born 200 years ago, while Witold Lutoslawski, Jerome Moross, Morton Gould and Benjamin Britten would have been 100 this year. But I'm paying tribute to a classic Irish song, which also gets its centenary in 1913.

To some, this beautiful farewell to a loved one remains a tear-jerker. To others, it has become a corny joke. It can be interpreted as a father's blessing to his son, a woman parting from a lover/husband or a symbolic tribute to the Irish people spread across the globe by the diaspora of the 19th century. 

It has been recorded by Eric Clapton and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Conway Twitty (whose rockabilly version was apparently banned by the BBC) and Cher and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett (with Stan Getz on sax and Herbie Hancock on piano) and Elvis Presley, at whose 1977 funeral it was played.

Here are a couple of my favorite performances. The first is by Frank Patterson, a traditional interpretation heard on the soundtrack of "Miller's Crossing." The second is by the late and definitely great Jackie Wilson.

The music predates the lyrics by English attorney Frederic Weatherly, (He also wrote the religious song "The Holy City" and the World War I hit "Roses of Picardy.") Weatherly first wrote these verses to a now-forgotten tune in 1910; only after his sister-in-law in America sent him the 19th-century instrumental piece known as "Londonderry Air" did he produce the immortal version that Elsie Griffin made popular in 1913.

By my own youth in the 1960s, comedians could get a laugh by mocking the opening line: "Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling..." But the last verse has always seemed poignant to me, as the parent (or possibly lover) imagines Danny coming back to Ireland and standing at the singer's grave:

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you'll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

I'm about as Irish as a plate of felafel, but this song has always made me feel just a little like a son of Erin.


Anonymous said...

would always brig a tear to my grandfather's eye until the day he passed away