I really enjoy singing folk songs as they offer a wealth of beautiful melodies, which are a joy to sing. Their stories can vary from first love to lost loves, and at times even reveal some local gossip, (although historical now) to induce a chuckle. I find that the charming melodies can be enjoyed by any listener despite their musical preferences or musical ability. I think this is quite remarkable and something to be celebrated.
The origin of most folk songs is hard to identify because when they were composed, for the most part, it would be off the cuff and in reaction to a moment of inspiration under the influence of great joy, grief, or affection. Their hearts would sing out tender melodies, which would be shared amongst friends, and then these simple melodies would be repeated on different instruments, in different venues by different artists until it became a recognised tune within the community.
The melody of “O Danny Boy” uses one of Ireland’s more popular national tunes called “Londonderry Air”. The name given to the tune suggests it may have originated in County Derry in Northern Ireland. The age of the tune is unknown, but like all the songs of the people, it has been handed down through the generations. Over the years it has inspired many settings of songs and often different words were linked to the beautiful melody. This could be because of the oral tradition of folk music, where the music is learned through hearing rather than reading. This can affect the preservation of the tune because new variants appear as they are shared and sung in communities. We are lucky that this tender melody was written down and recorded for future generations to share and enjoy. It is generally believed that the first written recording was made by Jane Ross (1810-79), who lived in Limavady in County Londonderry. It would appear that she was an instrumentalist rather than a singer as neither the words nor title appears with the music. In 1855, an arrangement of Londonderry Air for piano was published by George Petrie in his collection of ancient Music of Ireland.
“Of all the national tunes which have been rescued from oblivion … none has achieved such striking popularity as the old Irish tune known as the “Londonderry Air.”
(Henry Coleman, “The Londonderry Air”, Musical Times, 99 (1918), 349-50)
In 1913, Frederic Weatherly (an English lawyer, author, and lyricist) wrote an arrangement for voice and piano and titled the song “Danny Boy”. After its publication, war broke out the following year, and English opera singer Elsie Griffin popularised the song amongst British troops in France. In the following decades, Danny Boy was recorded many times and played on gramophones in people’s homes and listened to in radio broadcasts. It was featured in a Hollywood film, Because of Him. It is a beloved song, whose words and melody express the endurance of love and how it can transcend through time.
O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone and all the flow’rs are 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
O Danny boy, O Danny boy I love you so.
But when ye come and all the flow’rs are dying
If I am dead as dead I well maybe,
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.