Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling . . .
Whenever I hear this song, I think of my dad.
Since he was such a passionate music lover, there are many songs that remind me of him, but none touches me as deeply as “Danny Boy.”
When I was growing up, music was that special something we could do together. With my brother it was fishing, but with me, James loved to play his harmonica while I accompanied him on the piano.
First, he would line up his instruments — he had several Hohner Chromonicas and a couple of diatonic harmonicas in different keys.
Then we would play our way through my stack of sheet music and piano books — folk songs, church hymns, patriotic songs, show tunes (Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lerner and Loewe), semi-classical pieces, Strauss waltzes, drinking songs/sea shanties, Christmas carols, on and on.
I would try to find songs in the same key so he wouldn’t have to keep switching harmonicas with every song. I knew which ones he especially loved to play: “O Sole Mio,” “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” “Greensleeves,” “Finlandia,” “Moon River,” “Santa Lucia,” and of course, “Londonderry Air” (the melody for “Danny Boy”).
A good harmonica player is able to bring out single notes to make the melody soar, and my dad was a great soloist in this regard. He once played Sibelius’s “Finlandia” in church, moving many to tears. His breath control was amazing for a two-packs-a-day cigarette smoker. 🙂
My father seemed to have a special place in his heart for Irish tenors. On Saturday nights, he enjoyed hearing Joe Feeny on The Lawrence Welk Show sing “My Wild Irish Rose, “Irish Lullaby,” “Danny Boy,” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” which eventually became Dad’s signature song to sing at wedding receptions.
I once asked him why he liked Irish songs so much and he said, “Don’t you know that Koreans are the Irish of Asia?”
Well okay — a high percentage of the Irish are regular church goers, they’re quick to break out into song or verse, they wear their hearts on their sleeves (watch those tempers), love their drink, are sometimes prone to brawling, and have a thing for cabbage.
Yes, James must be Irish then. 🙂
At the time, I didn’t consider that both Ireland and Korea have a shared history of colonial occupation and partition, and have fought hard to retain their unique cultural identities despite being bullied by their island neighbors.
As for “Danny Boy,” I’d always assumed both melody and lyrics were 100% Irish. After all, isn’t it considered the traditional Irish ballad throughout the world?
The lyrics were in fact written in 1910 by English lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly — but initially he had written the song to another tune.
In 1913, his Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (who was living in America), sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air,” and when he heard it, he was so taken with the sweeping melody, he tweaked his lyrics accordingly. “Danny Boy” soon became one of the most popular songs of the 20th century and beyond, with its ability to stir up deep emotions and national pride.
But what of “Londonderry Air”? There are various theories as to its origin, many involving blind harpists. The most popular theory is that in 1851, a woman named Jane Ross happened to hear an itinerant fiddler playing it in Limavady, Northern Ireland. She asked him if she could transcribe the music to send to her friend in Dublin, who was trying to preserve the ancient music of Ireland. He agreed, but sadly, his name has been lost to the ages.
What is “Danny Boy” about? Many think it’s about a parent sending a son off to war, but it could also be a song of farewell to any of the millions of Irish emigrants.
The heartrending impact of the song ultimately speaks to fundamental feelings of loss, departure, and perhaps, death. The longing for “home,” whether it be a person, place, or time period is universal. However melancholy, the song’s final lines do offer hope of reunion, whether in this life or the next.
Though there are many beautiful renditions of “Danny Boy” by the likes of Eva Cassidy, Emmet Cahill, and Elvis Presley (who claimed the song was written by angels), the one that tugs most at my heartstrings is by 4-year-old child prodigy Emma Sophia Ryan from Kinsale, Ireland.
When you combine the emotional power of the song with the sweetness and purity of this child’s voice, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved.
I think back to all the times James and I played this song together, all the times I heard him sing a few bars of it in the shower, all the times he lit up whenever he heard it on the radio or watched someone sing it on TV.
My wish for this Father’s Day is that we could play “Danny Boy” together just one more time, that I could return ‘home’ to when a younger me would say, “This one’s in the key of G,” and he would eagerly pick up his harmonica.
He would have loved Emma Sophia, and he was happy that his daughter ended up marrying an Irish American who was once a choir boy. 🙂
This one’s for you, James.
Time again to sign off for our annual summer blog break. Now that we’re making good progress with vaccinations and lower case counts, hope you’re able to see more friends and family members in person. Whether you have plans to travel or luxuriate in a restful staycation, stay well and we’ll see you right after Labor Day.
Happy Father’s Day weekend, Happy Juneteenth, and Happy Summer!
BTW, is there a particular song that reminds you of your father?
The wonderfully talented Buffy Silverman is hosting the Roundup at her blog. Wander over there to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week.
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.