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"Oh, Danny Boy"
March 12, 2014 11:34 AM   Subscribe

With St. Patrick's Day fast approaching, it's a great opportunity to have a look at "Danny Boy".

Though the words were actually written by English songwritter Fred Weatherly (who had never even set foot in Ireland before), the tune is based on the Irish melody "The Londonderry Aire". The song celebrated it's 100th birthday last year and has become in that time a favorite of musicians across many genres. Some examples:

Johnny Cash
Eric Clapton
Sinead OConnor
Charlotte Church
Elvis Presely
Mario Lanza
Animal, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef (Previously)

And then there is Frank Patterson, who may not be the most recognizable name, but whose version was made immortal for film fans because of one classic scene.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (50 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Oh dear. As a traditional Irish musician, I can say that it's almost never a good time to have a look at "Danny Boy."

We used to have a sign in the session I played at that said "Requests gladly accepted. Danny Boy $20"

It's no surprise that among trad players the tune is sometimes called "London Derriere!"

Having said that, in my quieter moments I pull out the flute and can render a pretty sweet version of it, because free of all the saccharine, it's a pretty good tune as an air. Maybe I'll put my version up at MeFi music.
posted by salishsea at 11:38 AM on March 12 [16 favorites]

Larry Kirwan, of the "Celtic Punk" band Black 47, spun it into a protest song against homophobia.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on March 12 [5 favorites]

Oh, hey, look at this - BBC One did a whole study of the song.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:48 AM on March 12

Danny Boy is easy to roll your eyes at, it's so omnipresent and seems so hackneyed. But it's definitely a time-and-place thing. Done right, or on the right occassion, it can be really moving. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I was at a funeral last year and the musicians played it during the Mass (which you're not normally allowed to do here so I'd never heard it in that setting.) And of course we got to:

But when ye 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 warm and sweeter be / For you will bend and tell me that you love me / And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

Talk about not a dry eye in the house.

(It's also fun to listen to people attempt to sing it, it's such a big range most people can't manage it.)
posted by billiebee at 11:51 AM on March 12 [8 favorites]

The Muppets version is the best version.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:52 AM on March 12 [6 favorites]

Keith Jarrett does a tasteful version.
posted by Longtime Listener at 11:53 AM on March 12

Order of the Stick version
posted by Navelgazer at 11:57 AM on March 12

I've hung around with enough Celtic musicians of various stripes to have absorbed the contempt (and heard enough crap versions to understand why), but in the right time and place, it really is moving. However, I hope whoever's arranging my funeral chooses the Mingulay Boat Song instead.
posted by immlass at 11:59 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]

I saw Miller's Crossing at the Brattle Theater late last year, and the end of that scene, the car's explosion, got the biggest laugh of the whole movie.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:03 PM on March 12

And I hope whoever arranges MY funeral uses the Banana Boat Song!
posted by Navelgazer at 12:08 PM on March 12

Someone on the OOTS forums did a nice recording of the Buddy Roy version.
posted by tavella at 12:08 PM on March 12

Larry Kirwan, of the "Celtic Punk" band Black 47, spun it into a protest song against homophobia

... after mocking the constant requests for it from Irish-music traditionalists in an earlier lyric: "'Do youse not know nothin' by Christy Moore?' The next thing you'll be wantin' is 'Danny Boy'!"
posted by RogerB at 12:10 PM on March 12

You left out The Biker's audition number.

I just started taking piano lessons a year ago, and "Danny Boy" is one of the songs I get really into when nobody else is home to hear me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:11 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]

My first name is Dan, and when I was a young associate at a giant law firm I did a lot of my work for one of the bigwig partners in our office. When he had a new project for me (which was rarely enjoyable), I could hear him strolling down the hall to my office, singing "Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling..."

I fucking hate that song.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:22 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]

The great thing about Danny Boy is that it only needs has three words, as demonstrated by Beeker, Animal and the Swedish Chef. Makes it easy to sing.
posted by bonehead at 12:28 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

Schmaltzy Irish music immediately brings to mind my grandpa working out in the yard, listening to the Irish music station on his paint-spattered transistor radio. This is supposed to lead into a touching anecdote about how Danny Boy et al get me all misty-eyed, but no, he put me right off it. Still not much for trad in general, and I'm making a key lime pie this weekend for St. Padday's day this weekend, so pbbbbt.

This thread did lead me into a tangentially-related YouTube trip through the oeuvre of Kirsty McColl, though, so there's that.
posted by Diablevert at 12:30 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

The Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, Ireland has a good online article about the history and various versions and iterations of Danny Boy.
posted by LN at 12:49 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

I can't believe nobody's yet linked to this beautiful version (by the brass band featured in the soundtrack of the movie Brassed Off).
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:51 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

The coffeeshop down the street often plays a Conway Twitty rendition of Danny Boy. Threw me for a loop the first ten or so times I heard it because it starts out so traditionally, interrupting whatever lively honkytonk playlist the barista has it on with down-tempo schmaltz. And then it goes all yee-haw rollicking country fun and all is right again.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 12:56 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Cue Bill Evans.
posted by The Bellman at 1:00 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

Aforementioned Muppets version. By far the best.
posted by CheeseLouise at 1:05 PM on March 12

Cait O'Riordan, The Pogues and pretty much the whole rest of the cast of "Straight to Hell" as drunk as lords.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:06 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

It does make me enjoyably damp-eyed, usually, but that's because I'm bringing so much to it: memories of FDNY funerals, touching scenes in films, etc. If heard it now without all that, would it still seem moving or would it be as cheesy as hell? It would be interesting to see someone's reaction to their first time listening to it.

There aren't all that many popular songs about fathers and sons (yes, yes, Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens), and not that many popular songs that tell men "NOW IS THE TIME WHEN YOU CRY."
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:13 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

I never read it as fathers and sons. I always just thought "parent" and emigrating son / child.
posted by billiebee at 1:19 PM on March 12

It's not explicit, but I know that one common reading is that it's a father singing to his son who's going to war. Many interpretations are possible.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:22 PM on March 12

Yeah, that's interesting. I think I always projected on to it - my Mum's brother emigrated to Australia in the 60s and my Grandmother never saw him again, they only had letters. He came back for the first time twenty years later and she was already in her grave, and that was reality for a lot of people whose children left Ireland for whatever reason. Nice to think of another slant to it.

See, people - it's multilayered and full of longing. Don't knock it!
posted by billiebee at 1:28 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

When we were little, my father assigned us each a personal lullaby that he would sing to us. Mine was "Scarlet Ribbons", my brother Brian had "You take the High Road and I'll Take the Low Road", and my brother Daniel of course got "Danny Boy". After he sang each song we would discuss their meaning. So I can never hate Danny Boy.

Boy you want to make me cry, start singing Scarlet Ribbons.
posted by maggiemaggie at 1:30 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

I guess I'd never thought too much about it, but I always in the back of my head thought it was about two soldiers who had come to depend on one another.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:39 PM on March 12

I can't believe nobody's yet linked to this beautiful version (by the brass band featured in the soundtrack of the movie Brassed Off).

Specifically, this is Percy Grainger's "Irish Tune From County Derry". I love it (and Brassed Off); we play it in my community band.
posted by candyland at 1:50 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

Our critical reading had it as a soldier's son
posted by maggiemaggie at 1:51 PM on March 12

Oh, man. I was in a women's choir an an underclassman at university, and an a cappella arrangement of "Danny Boy" was one of our signature pieces. This was in an area with an aging population largely descended from Eastern European and Italian, but mostly Irish, immigrant laborers.

We were young and fresh-faced, and dare I say a bit angel-voiced, and tended to wear flowers in our hair. You know the sort of thing. After the first few concerts, I learned not to look down. You couldn't look down. If you looked down, you'd see the tears streaming down the wrinkled faces, sparkling like diamonds in the stage lights, and suddenly your voice wouldn't work, and you'd start to think, "My God, what kind of unholy power is this, and am I wielding it for good or for evil?"

I LIKE to think I was bringing catharsis and not just anguish.

These sorts of songs tend to have more meaning for Irish-Americans, I think, because of the separation and the guilt their ancestors went through, leaving behind everyone they knew as if they were dead.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:11 PM on March 12 [13 favorites]

posted by danny boy at 3:19 PM on March 12 [8 favorites]

I always hated this song.

Then one night at the Great American Music Hall in SF, sometime in the 80s I think, I heard Van Morrison do it. It was amazing. Some day I hope someone will hear my prayer and send me a mp3 of it. (hint hint...) I know it was recorded, and that recording exists somewhere, looking for me.
posted by cccorlew at 3:46 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Renee Fleming sings it well, because Renee Fleming.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:56 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

“One hesitates to call the first World War a stroke of luck, but I think for any work of art to endure it needs a stroke of luck and his lyrics for “Danny Boy” were published in 1913, a year before millions of people were finding themselves having to say goodbye to people who they hoped against hope that they might one day see again,” he said.

This wins my vote for most understated statement of the decade.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:57 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Then one night at the Great American Music Hall in SF, sometime in the 80s I think, I heard Van Morrison do it. It was amazing. Some day I hope someone will hear my prayer and send me a mp3 of it. (hint hint...) I know it was recorded, and that recording exists somewhere, looking for me.

If it was May 5, 1983, there appears to be a copy here. (Hosted on a filesharing site, so you'll need to find the real "download" button [it's the orange one on top] and kill a popup or two, but still.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 4:00 PM on March 12

Cool. My first post here nine years ago was about the roots of the melody of Danny Boy.

God I've been here a long time.
posted by frecklefaerie at 4:07 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

Had a crush on a woman I sorta dated during college, and went to a concert where she sang "Danny Boy" (as a tribute to her own father, actually). I knew this, intellectually, but (my name being Dan) it left my weak and juvenile heart rather confused in a way that used to make me guilty but now makes me equally wistful, in a kind of full-circle logic.
posted by dhartung at 4:16 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]

Personal update: After my upstream comment on Van Morrison I checked YouTube (again) and there it was! My life is now complete.
posted by cccorlew at 4:31 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Julian May's 1980s brilliantly trashy sci-fi psychic elves'n'goblins (who were actually aliens)-in-the-Pleistocene Saga of the Exiles books had 'Danny Boy' as the tune for the alien national anthem.

It made sense at the time.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:39 PM on March 12

I was an accomplice in what must have been the strangest band competition number ever; three trombones, a bassoon, an oboe and two flutes performing "Danny Boy" in Alabama, at Birmingham Southern College, in 1974. I, a trombonist for 13 years, had decided to "pick up" the sadly neglected bassoon in the overlooked instruments room for a lark, and turned out to be damned good at it. We actually proceeded to Nationals and won a respectable Second with that, and then accidentally got invited to play at Windsor Castle when I was coincidentally stationed In England in 1981 In the US Air Force.

Were I the sort to make shit up, that would probably not occur to me in my wildest dreams. Challenge me at karaoke if you dare. If I can make you cry with a bassoon, you ain't seen nothin yet.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:52 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

I never thought much of this song until one night on a plane I heard this version by Johnny Cash, from just before his death.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:57 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Great post! One of my favorite versions has always been this vocally astounding version by Jackie Wilson. Wait for the 2:11 mark.
posted by beisny at 7:48 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

My band instructor used this as part of our warmup. Everyday for four years, the first thing in my morning was a rendition of Londonderry Aire. Surprisingly, I actually don't hate it. If you can be that immersed in a song so often and not hate it passionately, it must be a pretty good song.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:08 PM on March 12

If you can bear Hayley Westenra's version without moist eyes, then you are lost.
posted by SPrintF at 8:11 PM on March 12

No discussion of Danny Boy is complete without mention of DannyBot, the sci-fi parody version by Frank Lesser (who went on to write for the Colbert Report.)
posted by yankeefog at 8:55 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

I'd never really listened to this song until I heard Harry Dean Stanton sing it live, "a capella", last November. He did a truly ethereal Q and A after a film festival screening of the recent documentary about his life. The interviewer had no clue how to talk to him and got progressively more flustered. With nothing to push against, he invited Mr. Stanton to sing something. He choose Danny Boy.
Holy crap.
After practically sobbing myself, I realized the interviewer was COMPLETELY undone. Totally priceless.
While this kinda gets the idea across, the emotional intensity and honesty of his singing, his advanced age and meaning conveyed by the lyrics just wrecked me.
I'll never forget it.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 10:24 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

See this is the magic of this insufferable air. You hate it to death until you sing it and the whole room goes to pieces and you - if you are any kind of human at all - feel a little twang in your chest and a lump in your throat. Damn that eternally redeemable tune!

(This is the REAL reason why we charged $20 to play it as a request. It lies in a complicated to get to place in the topography of the heart)
posted by salishsea at 1:12 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I was an accomplice in what must have been the strangest band competition number ever; three trombones, a bassoon, an oboe and two flutes performing "Danny Boy" in Alabama, at Birmingham Southern College, in 1974.

Reminds me of first-year theory class, when we would pick the most oddball assortments of instruments to arrange for so we'd have to do the minimum amount of transposing, and only to the keys we liked. (This was back when it was all done by hand, and even if it hadn't been, our prof would have made us do it by hand as a learning experience.)

We'd sing a bastardized version of "Seventy-six Trombones:"
Seventy-six bassoons led the big parade,
With a hundred and ten oboes close at hand.
I modestly take my place as the one and only flute,
And I tootle up and down the square!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:39 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

If I had a nickel for every time some doof sang "Oh Dani Girl" to me, I could pay off my student loans.

Because of that, I never could have foreseen that song breaking my goddamn heart, leaving my sister and I sobbing (just sobbing) in each others' arms at my Irish grandpa's funeral, but there we were.

Years later and I have to leave the room when people sing it at karaoke and I don't think I can face any of the versions you guys have linked. I have such a lump in my throat just thinking about it. Maybe after another whiskey.

(It seems right to feel this way on St. Patrick's Day, though, and I'm certain my sort of funeral-loving grandpa would have approved.)
posted by MsDaniB at 3:27 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]

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