[PART 3 OF 3]
In my first Danny Boy post …
- I shared with you the fascinating history surrounding the tune to which the words of “Danny Boy” were set, back in the early 1900’s;
- I explored the possibility that this song may have played an important role in my own family’s history 😉 ;
- I shared my long-held desire to someday record a four-part harmony version of the song with my four brothers, in honor of my sweet Dad.
I used my second Danny Boy post to supply my brothers with the tools necessary to prepare for a recording session at Thanksgiving. The whole family gathered at my brother Wes’ house in College Station, Texas, to celebrate the beloved holiday of overeating. After lunch, we broke out the microphones and recorder, and proceeded to record Danny Boy in acappella four-part harmony. We actually ended up with two separate recordings: one with the five O’Rear boys and our uncle Tim, and one with my Mom added, singing soprano. I have posted both recordings below. They are not professional by any means, but I think they turned out pretty good.
What does it mean?
Much discussion has been given, through the years, to the meaning of the “Danny Boy” lyrics.
Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling.
It’s you, it’s 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.
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
Oh, Danny Boy, oh, Danny Boy, I love you so.
But when you come, and all the flow’rs 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, though 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.
The lyrics were written in 1910 by an English lawyer and songwriter named Fred Weatherly. When his sister-in-law sent him the tune “Londonderry Air” from Colorado in 1912, Weatherly only had to slightly modify his “Danny Boy” lyrics to make them fit this haunting melody.
Though the song is supposed to be a message from a woman to a man (Weatherly provided the alternative “Eily dear” for male singers in his 1918 authorised lyrics), the song is actually sung by men as much as, or possibly more often than, by women. The song has been interpreted by some listeners as a message from a parent to a son going off to war or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
Although some view the above interpretation of Danny Boy as the true meaning, there is also another meaning for this song. The lyrics were supposedly written by a father who lost his son, Danny. The phrase, “the pipes, the pipes are calling” refers to the tradition funeral instrument [bagpipes] played at some funerals. 
Back in December 2001, Mark Vittert wrote an article entitled “Danny Boy” for the St. Louis Business Journal’s Opinion Column. After watching a PBS special on “The Three Irish Tenors” and then receiving a CD of the same, he listened to their recording of “Danny Boy” repeatedly, trying to figure out what it meant. The meaning eluded him.
So, I called a gentleman here in St. Louis who knows a good amount about the Irish and would probably be able to help me know the real meaning of the song.
He said that Danny Boy was the story of a mother singing to her last son. Her husband and eldest son had already left their home and had gone off to war, where they had both been killed in the fighting. And now, the mother was saying goodbye to her boy; not asking him to stay, but thinking about what may be when her son would hopefully return someday. 
Fred Weatherly himself, the author of the “Danny Boy” Lyrics, cleared up some of the misonceptions about the song being a wartime anthem.
Many believe the lyrics were intended to honor the courage of rebellious Irishmen or comfort their progeny. In 1926 Weatherly said that Danny Boy was being sung all over the world – by Sinn Fein-ers and Ulstermen, by Englishmen and Australians and Americans. Fred said, “It will be seen that there is nothing of the rebel in it, and no note of bloodshed.” He acknowledged he had written some rebel songs but insisted “Danny Boy” was not one of them. 
James Flannery is an accomplished Irish tenor, stage director and producer. He is also an author and scholar of Irish and Celtic music, poetry, and mythology. He points out that Weatherly’s theme “was inspired by personal grief – his father and son had recently died.”  He then relates a personal experience that brought home the meaning of the song in a very powerful way, at least in his interpretation.
Two years ago this autumn I had another powerful experience of the song when a close friend of mine, Mel Konner, asked me to sing it at the funeral of his wife, Marjorie. Mel, a distinguished university professor, happens to be Jewish, and so, when he made the request, I was taken aback. He then explained that it was Marjorie’s and his favorite song. “OK, Mel,” I said. “But you’ll have to ask the rabbi to explain that to the people who attend the service.” Mel’s only request was that I change the line, “And pray an Ave there for me” to “And lay a flower there for me.”
The funeral home was filled and, as I sat among the mourners, I was filled with angst. The notion of an Irish tenor singing “Danny Boy” at a Jewish funeral struck me as requiring more chutzpah than I felt I could muster. But, as I began to dwell upon the meaning of the words, it suddenly made sense. In this context, it was Marjorie speaking one last time to Mel. And that is exactly how it struck everyone who attended the service. 
Ultimately, we may never know the true meaning of the “Danny Boy” lyrics.
Ultimately, there may not even be just ONE true meaning of the “Danny Boy” lyrics.
Robert Armstrong summed it up nicely in an article he wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2003. In reviewing the book Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad by Malachy McCourt, Armstrong made the following observations.
“‘Danny Boy’ is a song of two verses totaling 155 words,” McCourt writes. “Speculation about the meaning of these words is as ripe as when the song was first published in 1913, a year before World War I broke out in Europe.”
And it’s fascinating speculation: Who is addressing Danny? McCourt suggests 10 possibilities: priest, gay lover, daughter, son, brother, sister, girlfriend, wife, father or mother. McCourt discusses each and dismisses all but one, then offers a reasoned explanation for what the song means.
Frederick Edward Weatherly, who wrote the lyrics, never set foot in Ireland, and the lyrics originally were written for another, failed song.
Weatherly never explained his lyrics, and fans of the song all seem to have their own ideas. So in the end, “Danny Boy” means what it means to you. 
And now, for those recordings of “Danny Boy” that we recorded at Thanksgiving. You can listen by pressing the play button. You can download by right-clicking the “download” link and saving to your computer.
Download MP3 (right-click, save)
Mimi and the Boys
Download MP3 (right-click, save)
Part 1: “Danny Boy”
Part 2: “Danny Boy (Part 2, in 4 Parts)”
Part 3: “Danny Boy III”
- Ireland, Avondale House, Avondale, County Wicklow, by IvanWalsh.com (Flickr), Creative Commons License
- Danny Boy. (2-Dec-2008). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.Retrieved 6-Dec-2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Danny_Boy&oldid=255448331.
- Mark Vittert. “O Danny boy”. St. Louis Business Journal (7-Dec-2001).Retrieved 4-Dec-2006 from http://www.bizjournals.com/stlouis/stories/2001/12/10/editorial5.html.
- Patricia Doherty Hinnebusch. “The Origin of the Song, Danny Boy”. (2005).Retrieved 4-Dec-2008 from http://www.karlsenfineart.com/article-Ireland-song.htm.
- James Flannery, Ph.D. “Mythic Imagination Institute”. (2006).Retrieved 4-Dec-2008 from http://www.mythicjourneys.org/newsletter_mar06_flannery.html.
- Robert Armstrong. “The Origins of ‘Danny Boy'”. Minneapolis Star Tribune. (16-Mar-2003).Retrieved 4-Dec-2008 from “Ireland’s OWN: Republican Songs”. http://irelandsown.net/dannyboy2.html.