When I think of the tune Danny Boy, I have a very specific recollection of me playing this tune. It was during my semester in Harlaxton College near Grantham, England. I woke up early on Saturday and took a cab to Grantham to busk (play for tips) at the street market. It was fall, and I remember my fingers getting a little bit stiff and cold as I played. There weren’t a lot of people at the market that day, and I didn’t make much money in tips, but I did get a few tips when I played Danny Boy. So, I played Danny Boy a few times that chilly morning at the market in England.
This morning, I hadn’t picked a tune yet, but since we were going to a morning networking group, I thought that would be a good time to record my tune of the day. I met a couple there, Gregg and Pam, who are doing tours to Ireland and England, at which point, I though “Danny Boy would make a good tune for today.” So, here’s to Gregg and Pam of Jolly Good Tours.
History of Londonderry Air according to Wikipedia
Londonderry Air is an air that originated from County Londonderry in Ireland. It is popular among the Irish diaspora and is very well known throughout the world. The tune is played as the victory anthem of Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games. “Danny Boy” is a popular set of lyrics to the tune.
The title of the air came from the name of County Londonderry in Ireland. The air was collected by Jane Ross of Limavady.
Ross submitted the tune to music collector George Petrie, and it was then published by the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland in the 1855 book The Ancient Music of Ireland, which Petrie edited. The tune was listed as an anonymous air, with a note attributing its collection to Jane Ross of Limavady.
For the following beautiful air I have to express my very grateful acknowledgement to Miss J. Ross, of New Town, Limavady, in the County of Londonderry–a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of the county , which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously acquired from that still very Irish county. I say still very Irish, for though it has been planted for more than two centuries by English and Scottish settlers, the old Irish race still forms the great majority of its peasant inhabitants; and there are few, if any counties in which, with less foreign admixture, the ancient melodies of the country have been so extensively preserved. The name of the tune unfortunately was not ascertained by Miss Ross, who sent it to me with the simple remark that it was ‘very old’, in the correctness of which statement I have no hesitation in expressing my perfect concurrence.
This led to the descriptive title “Londonderry Air” being used for the piece; the title “Air from County Derry” or “Derry Air” is sometimes used instead, due to the Derry-Londonderry name dispute.
The origin of the tune was for a long time somewhat mysterious, as no other collector of folk tunes encountered it, and all known examples are descended from Ross’s submission to Petrie’s collection. In a 1934 article, Anne Geddes Gilchrist suggested that the performer Ross heard played the song with extreme rubato, causing Ross to mistake the time signature of the piece for common time (4/4) rather than 3/4. Gilchrist asserted that adjusting the rhythm of the piece as she proposed produced a tune more typical of Irish folk music.
In 1974, Hugh Shields found a long-forgotten traditional song which was very similar to Gilchrist’s modified version of the melody. The song, Aislean an Oigfear (in modern Irish Aisling an Óigfhir, “The young man’s dream”), had been transcribed by Edward Bunting in 1792 based on a performance by harper Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh at the Belfast Harp Festival. Bunting published it in 1796. Ó Hámsaigh lived in Magilligan, not far from Ross’s home in Limavady. Hempson died in 1807. In 2000, Brian Audley published his authoritative research on the tune’s origins. He showed how the distinctive high section of the tune had derived from a refrain in The Young Man’s Dream which, over time, crept into the body of the music. He also discovered the original words to the tune as we now know it which were written by Edward Fitzsimmons and published in 1814; his song is ‘The Confession of Devorgilla’, otherwise known by its first line ‘Oh Shrive Me Father’.
The descendants of blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry assert that he is the musician from whom she transcribed the tune but there is no historical evidence to support this speculation. A similar claim is made that the tune came to the blind itinerant harpist Rory O’Cahan in a dream, and a documentary detailing this version was broadcast on the Maryland Public Television in USA in March 2000.
Lyrics Set to Londonderry Air (including Danny Boy)
The most popular lyrics for the tune are “Danny Boy” (“Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling”), written by English lawyer Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910, and set to the tune in 1913.
There are various theories as to the true meaning of “Danny Boy”. Some listeners have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to war or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora. The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent, or simply a publisher’s note; Weatherly did, however, acknowledge that “Danny Boy” was sung “all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike”, and noted that the song had “nothing of the rebel song in it, and no note of bloodshed”.
(There are a number of variations on these lyrics.)
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 there in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.And when you come, and all the flowers are dying
If 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.
The Confession of Devorgilla
The first lyrics to be sung to the music were, “The Confession of Devorgilla”, otherwise known as “Oh! shrive me, father”.
- ‘Oh! shrive me, father – haste, haste, and shrive me,
- ‘Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun;
- ‘Its beams of peace, – nay, of sense, deprive me,
- ‘Since yet the holy work’s undone.’
- The sage, the wand’rer’s anguish balming,
- Soothed her heart to rest once more;
- And pardon’s promise torture calming,
- The Pilgrim told her sorrows o’er.
The first writer, after Petrie’s publication, to set verses to the tune was Alfred Perceval Graves, in the late 1870s. His song was entitled ‘Would I Were Erin’s Apple Blossom o’er You.’ Graves later stated ‘…..that setting was, to my mind, too much in the style of church music, and was not, I believe, a success in consequence.’ (ref Audley, below).
- Would I were Erin’s apple-blossom o’er you,
- Or Erin’s rose, in all its beauty blown,
- To drop my richest petals down before you,
- Within the garden where you walk alone;
- In hope you’d turn and pluck a little posy,
- With loving fingers through my foliage pressed,
- And kiss it close and set it blushing rosy
- To sigh out all its sweetness on your breast.
Irish Love Song
The tune was first called “Londonderry Air” in 1894 when Katherine Tynan Hinkson set the words of her “Irish Love Song” to it:
- Would God I were the tender apple blossom
- That floats and falls from off the twisted bough
- To lie and faint within your silken bosom
- Within your silken bosom as that does now.
- Or would I were a little burnish’d apple
- For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold
- While sun and shade you robe of lawn will dapple
- Your robe of lawn, and you hair’s spun gold.
As with a good many folk tunes, Londonderry Air is also used as a hymn tune; most notably for I cannot tell by William Young Fullerton.
- I cannot tell why He Whom angels worship,
- Should set His love upon the sons of men,
- Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
- To bring them back, they know not how or when.
- But this I know, that He was born of Mary
- When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
- And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured,
- And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world is come.
It was also used as a setting for I would be true by Howard Arnold Walter at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales:
- I would be true, for there are those that trust me.
- I would be pure, for there are those that care.
- I would be strong, for there is much to suffer.
- I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
- I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless.
- I would be giving, and forget the gift,
- I would be humble, for I know my weakness,
- I would look up, and laugh, and love and live.
“Londonderry Air” was also used as the tune for the Southern Gospel hit “He looked beyond my fault” written by Dottie Rambo of the group “The Rambos”
- Amazing Grace shall always be my song of praise,
- For it was grace that bought my liberty,
- I do not know just why He came to love me so,
- He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
- I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary,
- To view the Cross where Jesus died for me,
- How marvelous His grace that caught my falling soul,
- When he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
Other hymns sung to this are:
- I Love Thee So
- My Own Dear Land
- We Shall Go Out With Hope of Resurrection
- Above the Hills of Time the Cross Is Gleaming
- Lord of the Church, We Pray for our Renewing
- “What Grace is Mine” by Kristyn Getty
In Derry Vale
W. G. Rothery, a British lyricist who wrote the English lyrics for songs such as Handel’s “Art Thou Troubled,” wrote the following lyrics to the tune of “The Londonderry Air”:
- In Derry Vale, beside the singing river,
- so oft’ I strayed, ah, many years ago,
- and culled at morn the golden daffodillies
- that came with spring to set the world aglow.
- Oh, Derry Vale, my thoughts are ever turning
- to your broad stream and fairy-circled lee.
- For your green isles my exiled heart is yearning,
- so far away across the sea.
- In Derry Vale, amid the Foyle’s dark waters,
- the salmon leap, beside the surging weir.
- The seabirds call, I still can hear them calling
- in night’s long dreams of those so dear.
- Oh, tarrying years, fly faster, ever faster,
- I long to see that vale belov’d so well,
- I long to know that I am not forgotten,
- And there in home in peace to dwell.