Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: "Danny Boy: The Beloved Irish Ballad"

The first and only time I had an opportunity to perform "Danny Boy" was in the basement of a Catholic church for a group of seniors who were celebrating St. Patrick's Day and wanted a touch of Irish in the program. At the exact moment I arrived at the line, "And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me," there was a thunderous stampede heard overhead: the school had just released its students for the day.

Which has (or perhaps should have) almost nothing to do with this review, although that hilarious juxtaposition of lyrics and sound kept many eyes from misting up, which they normally would have given the powerful emotions often conjured by a performance of "Danny Boy," something Malachay McCourt, in his lovely little book, mentions repeatedly.

Who wrote the lyrics? Where did the Londonderry Air originate (alright, it came from Londonderry but from whose pen (or possibly, in this case, from whose pipes or whose fiddle)? Who is speaking/singing and what is her/his relationship to Danny?

No spoilers here, and McCourt doesn't necessarily provide a concrete answer to all these questions, but he does lay out enough information, both legendary and factual, to make this a very informative read for lovers of the song. McCourt's writing is sometimes humorous, often beautiful, and always informative as can be seen from a summarizing paragraph towards the book's end:

"While 'Danny Boy' will always be touted as an Irish ballad, it was truly the product of many different worlds meshing together. Let it be the tune of a blind, Irish fiddler drifting across the sea, reaching an English barrister who would finally marry words and melody to create a song capable of describing, at least in part, the contents of the human heart. The song depicts the human condition, about the unknown and the black cloud of finality that accompanies it. The message is available to all those who want to hear it. 'Danny Boy' has a profound effect on people from all corners of the world, a trait it shares with the truest of any work of art."

(Eva Cassidy doesn't sing the song's original tune or rhythm exactly but she makes this beautiful song her own. Enjoy.)

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