“Oh Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside”
- an English Lawyer, who never visited Ireland
Ask nearly anyone in North America to name an Irish song, and their first answer will be “Danny Boy,” the beloved traditional ballad that evokes Ireland’s rolling hills, and which, along with cries of “Erin Go Bragh!” can be heard from nearly any pub in North America on St. Patrick’s Day. Together with the shamrock and leprechaun, it’s one of the most “Irish” things that many of us are familiar with. But it’s in fact less than 100 years old, more iconic in North America than in Ireland, is one of hundreds of songs set to the same tune, and was written by a man that never saw Ireland!
Where does “Danny Boy” Originate?
“The Londonderry Air” is an air from County Londonerry that’s become anthemic to Northern Ireland. It’s played as the victory anthem of Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, and has been known in its current incarnation since 1855, when it was published in the book The Ancient Music of Ireland after being collected and submitted by a woman named Jane Ross – of Londonderry.
It’s unknown precisely where Ms. Ross had encountered the tune, and what its true name was, since her only commentary on it was that it was “very old.” Some 40 years later it was speculated that it had been collected from an Irish fiddler named Blind Jimmy McCurry. But even he himself wasn’t the tune’s original composer, as nearly 50 years later in 1979 a song was identified from a collection of “Ancient Irish Music” that had been published in 1796 which was extremely similar. And if it was published as “ancient” in 1796, then it surely was ancient indeed!
This older version was not in 4/4 time, as are “the Londonderry Air” and “Oh Danny Boy,” but in the more traditional 3/3 time signature of Irish folk music. This song was entitled “Aislean an Oigfear” – in modern English, “The Young Man’s Dream” – and it had traditional Irish lyrics, as well as English ones that had been written in the 1800′s.
Who Wrote the Lyrics to “Danny Boy?”
While there are countless variations on the lyrics to “Oh Danny Boy,” (some thousands!) the popular lyrics as we’re familiary with them were penned by an English laywer named Frederick Weatherly, a man believed to have composed some 3,000 songs, and who was a significant celebrity in his day. He also, by all accounts, never in fact set foot in Ireland.
Weatherly himself only discovered the tune when his own sister sent him a copy from North America, where she had heard the Jane Ross version, which was unlike most traditional, Irish music played in Colorado during the gold rush. Weatherly’s lyrics had been written previously for another tune but upon discovering that they fit well with “the Londonderry Air” he modified them and published “Danny Boy” as we know it in 1913, with the first known recording occurring some two years later. After that, “Danny Boy” steadily grew in popularity, especially among Irish diaspora of North America. It’s been said that second-and-third-generation Irish were far more familiar with this so-called “folk song” than with Irish immigrants themselves (though with the age of the Internet it’s likely that it’s well-known around the world, and certainly to Irish nationals). And so, “Danny Boy” is a “traditional Irish folk song” that is in fact “traditional” to North Americans of Irish descent.
The Most Commonly Recognized Lyrics to Oh Danny Boy:
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.
And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be
For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
And I shall rest in peace until you come to me.
Oh, Danny Boy, Oh, Danny Boy, I love you so.
Some popular performances of “Danny Boy”
A popular and lovely arragement, from “Last Night at the Proms” in Belfast
The Celtic Women’s performance of “Danny Boy” is one of the highest rated on Youtube
Eva Cassidy’s recorded version remains one of the most popular versions, especially in North America
as performed by Shane McGowan and the Popes
Just for fun!
Do you love Danny Boy?
If you’ve performed Danny Boy, please let us know! We’d love to hear your experiences. If you have a favorite performance of it that you’d like to bring to our attention, we’d love to know about it. And of course, if you’re planning to sing it, whether solo or with a chorus, might we suggest you employ one of the world’s best music folders?
- Danny Boy. (2011, October 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:11, October 19, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Danny_Boy&oldid=454830524