Nelson Mandela said the song liberated him beyond his prison bars. The parents of Elvis Presley said he sang it in his bedroom when he was a boy. The Muppets did a sinful version of 'Danny Boy' and I’ve never forgiven them.
The song, which is the other great unsolicited gift to Ireland that ranks ahead of the English language and Victorian sewers, is rarely if ever performed with anything approaching its deserved heights.
The first failed attempt in 1912 by its author, Mr. Frederic Weatherly of Somerset, was rescued when, it is said, his sister, living in New England, suggested he try an Irish air derived from the traditional "Aisling an Óg Fear" (The Young Man’s Dream), which had been popular around the town of Limavady in County Derry, Ireland. It was a perfect fit and the rest is music history.
I’ve played this song on piano almost every day for sixty years. Starting out with one finger on a hard-sounding, old, reconditioned upright with a cruel and apparently irreparable middle C. We called our first-born Danny and he knows and likes his music. Some years ago he replied to a YouTube upload I had sent him. He told me that it was as good as any version out there. I took his critique and lodged it immediately for safe-keeping in my heart.
What is it about this song? The two short verses cut straight to the chase. Someone loves this exiled Danny Boy and will rest peacefully for eternity if he should come home just once, kneel at the plaintiff’s graveside and say a short prayer to the Blessed Virgin on his behalf. This tender message of life, love and death is delivered on a sweet and rousing melodious air. That’s it. So what’s all the fuss?
I don’t know.
I do know this. I have really never heard one adequate version. Only yesterday I was out walking on air with headphones listening to the heavenly Mezzo Soprano from Kansas, Joyce Di Donato. I could listen to her all day, every day but then I’d have no time to listen to that other perfect vocal artist, Janis Joplin.
Thanks to the wonder of YouTube I find Joyce doing complete justice to Judy Garland’s ‘Over the Rainbow.’ The BBC announcer says that Joyce was singing the last night of the Proms at the Albert Hall the previous night. YouTube takes me there and lo and behold, for an encore she does Danny Boy. OMG.
So the finest voice on the planet is about to sing the finest song with the BBC Symphony Orchestra behind her. I am too happy for words.
It’s a complete disaster. For starters The Hall is in its usual state of post final Proms flags-on-the-floor, balloons-in-the-rafters disarray. A great night has been had by all, apparently, as Joyce is ushered back on stage. To her horror and mine, some fellow with his shirt unbuttoned has apparently attempted another arrangement of the one song I can safely say does not need to be tampered with.
A tormented Irish Jig morphs awkwardly into the air we know and love. Joyce gives it socks but she’s singing to football hooligans, high on their own gas at this point. They are actually laughing and shouting as she starts. It’s just another in a long long line of 'Danny Boy' fails, I’m so sorry to say. The orchestral arrangement is a bit of a mess. Joyce, as always, is heavenly. She’s the only one who clearly gets it and can sing it as it deserves to be sung.
Eric Clapton’s instrumental is always nice. I once thought Nigel Kennedy had cracked it but no longer do. Percy Grainger introduced a completely unnecessary few notes that are trotted out by many performers these days who don’t know any better.
A nice but now dated television documentary on the song, entitled “In Sunshine or in Shadow,” was put together by ITV as an afterthought to a Beatles Retrospective. There was apparently some film left in the camera and a few quid unspent in the Beatles budget. At the very end of the documentary, John Hume is asked under Derry’s walls if he thinks 'Danny Boy' will ever be adopted as the official Anthem of all Ireland. He said "Yes, one day...... when we all grow up."
Terry Browne is a Dublin poet and pianist who played his own work at Carnegie Hall in 2016 - the musical art history of the foundation of the two Irelands.