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Danny Boy - A History Of The Song

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Danny Boy, A history of one of the most famous Irish songs of all time.

In 1851 in the town of Limavaddy Northern Ireland and according to locals a music collector Jane Ross was intrigued by a beautiful tune she heard drifting across the street. The tune was been played by the blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry. Jane loved the sound and asked Jimmy to play the tune over and over until she had the notes written down. Jane passed the notes on to John Petrie from Dublin who published it in 1855 in the ancient music of Ireland. This helped spread the tune further afield and it became known as ''The Londonderry Air''. Whoever had constructed this melody had created something brilliant.


In 1910 a sucsessiful English layer Fred Weatherly who was based in Bath and who also wrote lyrics in his spare time. Fred had put over 1000 lyrics to tunes. In 1912 Fred couldn't find a melody to fit his newly written song Dannd Boy. Two years later Fred had a visit from his brother and sister in lay who were living in Colorado America. His brother Eddie had emigrated to America and married Margaret who was the daughter of an Irish emigrant from County Kerry.


Margaret was into the old Irish songs that her father used to sing to her. Fred later admitted that Margaret had posted him the Sheet Music for The Londonderry Air. Fred's son said that why Fred said he had gotten the music by post is a bit of a mystery as Margaret had actually handed Fred the song notes. For many years this was the story going around. But new information said that Margaret sang the melody to Fred at his home in Bath, while Fred was playing piano Margaret sang the tune and Fred said ''This Is The Most Beautiful Melody I Ever Heard'' .


With only a few adjustments to the Derry Air which fred had wrote a few years earlier he soon put the music put the new music that Margaret had given him. At the same time Margaret had decided that she wanted to set her own lyrics to the air and she wasn't too happy about Fred using the tune for his Danny Boy.
Danny Boy was first published in 1913 on the eve of World War 1 with no credit given to Margaret.
It's lyrics instantly intrigued people and started inventing scenarios as to the meaning of the song, ''The Pipes Are Calling'' but calling him to go where ? . People often see in the lyrics a young man going off to war and with the outbreak of WW1 at the same time the song was associated with that war.


Some people say the song as rallying cry for young men to enlist in the army. Along with that other great song of the time ''It's A Long Way To Tipperary these songs became emotional anthems for the people. Famous singers at the time travelled to France to entertain the men and Danny Boy was always a favorite with the troops, perhaps because of the 200,000 Irishmen who served in that war. Mass emigration from Ireland during the 1920's to America brought the song to a new audience as the Irish have always brought their songs and music where ever they went to around the world. The Irish tenor John McCormack was now very popular all over America. He travelled from state to state singing in music halls and open air events. People came to listen to him in their thousands and he is credited for bringing the song to the American people.


By the 1940's Danny Boy had entered mainstream music in America with the big jazz bands playing and recording it, sometimes changing the arrangement and feel of the song to suit their own musical genre.
In the late 50's the biggest black crossover star of the day Harry Belafonte was drawn to Danny Boy. He included the song on two of his massive selling albums of the 50's. ''An Evening With Belafonte'' was the bigger. This helped propel the song to a much wider audience. Jackie Wilson's version in 1958 was completely different that anybody elses as he made it sensually and a song to slow dance to.


In the same year as Jackie Wilson's version came out the young rock and roll singer Elvis Presley was sent to Germany with his Army buddies. The song was always a favorite within the presley household and while Elvis was stationed in Germany he recorded Danny Boy. Elvis's mother had died just before he was sent to Germany. He was very home sick at the time and started to get into the ballads. He thought the song was beautiful and spiritual and singing it was a great way for expressing himself and getting away from the grief he had being getting for swinging his hips while preforming back in America.


Johnny Cash released his version in 1965. Cash said. QUOTE FROM JOHNNY '' One of the first stories I every remember my father telling me was one that an Irish imigrant told him, there was this boy named Danny McKinny, working in the fields one morning and across the fields came his sweetheart Rosealee. She came crying with tears in her eyes. Later someone put down into a song some of the things that Rosealee told Danny. She said Danny, there's a bloody war araging and I have come to tell you their coming and wanting you to fight. Go fight for Ireland but come back to me danny, I'll be waiting, END Quote. This was Johnny's way of introducing the song on stage, where he learned it and why it was important to him.


The song's success in America boosted it's reputation and had seeped into the very fabric of Irish life. As Phil Coulter says - There's a downside to it. Everybody has a drunk uncle who knows Danny Boy, and at family events such as weddings, he sings it and you cringe. but despite it being brutalised at weddings it's still a great song End Quote.


Barry McGuigan was a Catholic who was born in Clones Co. Monaghan close to the border with Northern Ireland who spent his life crossing bridges and barriers during the troubles in Ireland. Barry fell in love with the girl who lived across the road from him, she happened to be a Protestant girl. Barry McGuigan was a boxer who believedthat the sport of boxing could be a unifying force for Catholics and protestant. As Barry puts it ''I think sport has a unique ability to bring people together, I have seen it in my own life and I'm proof of it and the song Danny Boy had a lot to do with that. At the start of the 1980's Barry was a professional featherweight boxer.


When Barry fought for the world title in 1985 he said he knew he'd have to play an anthem but didn't want to play the Irish or British national anthem and so his team decided that his father should sing Danny Boy. Barry's father Pat was a professional singer and had been Ireland's entry in the 1968 Eurovision song contest. But in 1985 at Loftus Road this would be Pat's bigGest audience of his life. Phil Coulter arranged the version of Danny Boy that Pat would sing that night. For Pat, it was a message to Barry that he was going into battle. Well Pat sang the song and the whole crowd joined him, it was electric. The fight went to the last round and Barry was declared the winner. Danny Boy had shown the world it was the perfect vehicle to bridge the gap between the two communities, alas it didn't last more that a night.


By the 1990's Danny Boy was entering the world of New York HIP HOP music. Larry Kirwin and his band Black 47 were taking the status of the song and undermining it for their own fun. As Larry says ''My Idea Was To Have A New Danny Boy, An Irish Gay Construction Worker'' . Larry interpreted it as a gay labourer song to his lover, [what next I ask]
By the end of the 20th century the song was viewed as a secular hymn. The Londonderry Air had being played at the funerals of President Kennedy and Princess Diana. It was also preformed at the wake of Elvis Presley.


During the 9-11 attack on New York firefighter Nial Gerathy was part of the rescue effort. Tim lost many friends that day. Following the attack he continued to work at ground zero. The days were spent down there working with the iron workers and all the other rescue workers digging people out by hand. 343 New York fire fighters lost their lives at ground zero, many of Irish decent. The rescue workers used to break for lunch in a Cantina and one day this captain Tim was working with tapped him on the shoulder and said ''Hay, do you see that guy that's serving you food ? he said that's Ronan Tynan the Irish tenor. So the captain asked Ronan to sing a song. Well, Ronan finally agreed, he had this big chef hat on, he takes the hat off and lays down the big spoon he was serving the food with and he just started singing Danny Boy.


Within an instant his voice filled the whole room and the place fell silent. When he sang that song there were men who were moved to tears. It was like one of those moments, it was a goosebump moment. He sang the song and the whole room was still silent. He placed his chefs hat back on and continued working. Ronan was a volunteer giving a hand out just like many more did after 9/11. Just before the attack on 9/11 all secular music was banned at the Churches in New York. But at the funerals of the victims the song was sang and played anyway. The archdiocese was told that if we wand our songs played then they should be allowed, and they were.


Even to this day, 100 years later singers still have trouble reaching that high note when it goes ''Yes I'll Be There'' , that's the bit everybody has trouble reaching. It's all about what key you starting singing the song in otherwise by the time you get to the high part you'll have exhausted your range and won't be able to reach that big note.


Danny boy was Frederic Edward Weathery most popular song. He died a very rich man on September the 7th 1929. But his Irish born sister in lay who introduced him to the music for his lyrics was not so lucky. Fred's brother and Margaret had being receiving a small amount of money each year until Eddie died. When Eddie died during the American great depression Margaret's life fell apart. Fred's great grandson Dr. Anthony Mann said ''I think there's a moral issue here as Margaret gave something to Fred which he used to make this great Irish song, so I think he owed her and should have acknowledged her, but he didn't.


In 1939 this Irish American woman had been written out of history by Fred Weathery penniless and insane.
2013 was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Danny Boy and the song was celebrated during the Derry / Londonderry City Of Culture year with a mass sing-along at Guild Hall. As Phil Coulter said, this was the song coming home after all this time and was Derry reclaiming the song, saying, don't forget ''This Is Our Song''.
Danny Boy is a song that has moved every generation, it comes out of the past and comes into the here and now and you know it's going to go on for ever and ever. I suppose it's a bit like Guinness - It's everywhere.
The Ballad That Bewitched The World

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