Who Is Dead in “Danny Boy”?

Based on extensive polling (from my husband and brother-in-law), most people think that Danny is dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or sung this song myself, and that’s what I always vaguely thought. Somehow, though, as we guys (I sing tenor) were working on the piece in sectionals last week, I realized a startling truth:

Danny ain’t dead.

So who is? It’s whoever is speaking. Let’s do our usual plodding through the words and figure it out.

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
It’s you, It’s you, must go, and I must bide.

Now, to be fair, if you only looked at this first verse you might be excused for thinking that Danny is deceased. He “must go,” right? And the image of death is implied by the end of summer imagery. Well, let’s keep going:

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.

Hmmm. A blow has been dealt to the idea of Danny’s death. Otherwise, how’s he going to come back? But the time of his return seems to be very uncertain. And now we need also to address the question of who the speaker is. We don’t know for sure, but there are a couple of options. Our friend Wikipedia says that “Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to ‘pipes calling glen to glen’) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.” That makes sense, especially when we look at the next verse:

But if you come, and all the flowers are dying
And 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.

When I had my great insight about Danny’s non-dead state, I sort of assumed that the speaker in the song was his lover/mistress/girlfriend/fiancé who had been left behind, but then why would she think that she’d probably be dead herself by the time he returned, unless she was consumptive or some such? How long does she expect him to be gone, for Heaven’s sake? It makes much better sense for the speaker to be Danny’s mother, don’t you think?

And I will know, tho’ soft ye tread above me
And then my grave will richer, sweeter be
And you’ll bend down and tell me that you love me
And I will rest in peace until you come to me.

We’ll just leave it at that. To me it sounds kind of motherly, but if you want some other person in Danny’s life to be speaking, who am I to disagree? (And I will insert here, just to confuse things, that “The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (‘Eily Dear’), with the instructions that ‘when sung by a man, the words in italics 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 [the lyricist’s] intent.” Wikipedia, again. So there it is.)

But we’re not finished with the fascinating story behind this song. In fact, I’m going to insert a mini-teaser into the post here:

What’s the Colorado connection to “Danny Boy”?

Well, to begin with, the lyrics weren’t written by an Irishman but by an English lawyer Frederic Weatherly in 1910. He had put the words to another tune but the song hadn’t ever gained much popularity. He had an Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret who was living in . . . wait for it . . . Colorado, and who heard the tune being played by Irish immigrants, a tune usually called the “Derry Air” because it was first written down in the Irish town of Derry, and thought he might like it. (Apparently, the area was named “Londonderry” during English rule of the area, so if you’re a real Irishperson you reject that alternative title for it.) The source for the written tune was a woman named Jane Ross, who heard a blind fiddler playing the tune out in the Derry streets in 1850 and ran out of her hotel to ask him if she could write down the notation for her friend George Petrie in Dublin who was collecting Irish folk music. But Margaret (remember her? back at the beginning of this paragraph?) didn’t have the written notation as far as I can tell. So while the story usually just says that she “sent a copy” of the tune to her brother-in-law, a further detail has her singing it to him, which I assume means that she did so over the phone. Did they even have transatlantic phone service in 1913, the year when she supposedly did this? Who knows. Not me, anyway.

Whew! “Danny Boy” has been popular ever since. Interestingly, the composer and lyricist of our selection “Isle of Hope” wrote the lyrics to “You Raise Me Up,” the tune of which bears a strong resemblance to “Danny Boy.” But that tune was written by a Norwegian, Rolf Løvland of the band Secret Garden. According to the notes on the YouTube video of their performance, Løvland had read a book by Graham and sent him the tune to lyricize. (Is that a word?)

Well, I like the Josh Groban version  of ‘You Raise Me Up” better than the Secret Garden original—shows what a purist I am. So it’s below, plus a brief video about the recording of the DB tune, plus, just to emphasize the Colorado aspect of things, a gorgeous performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing DB at Red Rocks.


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