Tuesday 24 October 2017

Oh, Danny Boy – the 'old', 'Irish' song that isn't so green (or ancient)

It's exactly 100 years since the famous lyrics of 'Danny Boy' were first heard calling from glen to glen, and today the ballad is belted out around the globe wherever those calling themselves Irish gather in joy or mourning.

The ballad struck an instant chord with Irish-America, becoming a sheet music hit in 1913, and the greats who've recorded it include Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash and The Muppets. Elvis Presley so loved 'Danny Boy' that he made it the lynchpin of his live shows and had it played at his funeral.

By popular acclaim, 'Danny Boy' has become the national anthem of countless millions around the world who feel they're Irish, but who couldn't hum 'Amhrán na bhFiann' if their lives depended on it.

And there's the rub, because 'Danny Boy' is proudly English. The pipes-a-calling, the summers in the meadow, the whole green-tinted kit and caboodle was dreamed up in the Somerset drawing room of an eminent English gentleman who, as far as anyone can tell, never set foot on Irish soil.

It's far from certain that Frederic Weatherly even had Ireland in mind when he penned the lyrics of 'Danny Boy' three years earlier in 1910, matching them initially to a dreary tune that was soon discarded and forgotten. For all their lush greenery, there's nothing in the lyrics of 'Danny Boy' specific to Ireland.

They could have been written about Weatherly's native Somerset, except he'd pretty much exhausted that subject, having already penned ditties like 'Up From Somerset' and 'The Green Hills o' Somerset' amongst the 3,000 songs he churned out on sentimental themes. As one biographer said of Weatherly: "He was a one-man song-writing factory."

Weatherly had pretty much given up on 'Danny Boy' as a money-spinner when his sister-in-law in America sent him the sheet music for an old Irish tune called 'The Londonderry Air'. He stitched his old lyric onto the music and came up with one of the biggest hits of a wildly successful career in pop, opera, prose and poetry.

For a syrupy love song, 'Danny Boy' has caused more than its share of upsets and arguments. No sooner had it hit the music halls than an old friend of Weatherly's accused him of "poaching" the tune. The man with his nose out of joint, Alfred Graves, was another popular songwriter who had already written two sets of lyrics to 'The Londonderry Air' and felt it somehow belonged to him.

Ownership disputes over the tune stretch to its very name, with nationalists preferring 'The Derry Air' for reasons stretching back some 400 years. The air was saved for posterity by Jane Ross of Co Derry around 1850 and since then several claimants have emerged from the woodwork to argue over its authorship. Many more have simply designated the tune as common property and pinned their own lyrics to it.

To this day, 'The Derry Air' remains the dirge that just keeps giving, providing Westlife with the lilt of 'You Raise Me Up', and selected to reflect the sombre mood at the 1997 funeral of Princess Diana.

There may be one final twist in the tale of this most enduring and controversial air from Derry. It may be that the true composer is Jane Ross of Limavady, the woman who claimed it was already "very old" when she first wrote it down.

Several musicologists have pointed out that the time signature is strikingly different to that of typical Irish folk music.

Back in the golden age of Ireland's showbands, musicians booked to play non-stop cover versions would sometimes throw in a song they'd written themselves.

If the crowd kept dancing, unaware that they were listening to an original song, the musicians would give themselves a pat on the back.

Some experts suspect that this is how Jane Ross "discovered" the ultimate Irish traditional song, which, on so many counts, is not what it seems.

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