If you ask someone to name an Irish song, “Danny Boy” is among the most likely replies. The hauntingly beautiful tune and bittersweet lyrics together make this piece moving and memorable. Although the melody and words work wonderfully in combination, they actually were not created together. Each, in fact, has its own separate origin.
Read on for the story behind this traditional Irish favorite. For a lovely intermediate piano arrangement of “Danny Boy,” click the link below. This sheet music can be purchased and downloaded instantly.You’ll love the arrangement with its prominent familiar melody, flowing accompaniment, and complementary harmony, but just to make sure, you can listen to the piece before you buy.
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Danny Boy (Londonderry Air) | Sheet Music for Easy Level 5 Piano (Digital Print)
The lyrics, when paired with a different tune, met with a much less enthusiastic reception. English songwriter Fred Weatherly released the original version of “Danny Boy” in 1910, with his words set to another tune, and the song essentially failed. A relative living in America later introduced Weatherly to a beautiful Irish tune she had heard, and Weatherly found it to be a nearly perfect match for his “Danny Boy” lyrics. He re-released the piece in 1913. The combination of melody, lyrics, and timing (on the eve of World War I) made this version of the song much more successful. It resonated in England, Ireland, and beyond and would go on to be performed throughout the world and recorded by countless artists. Even a century later, the song remains beloved and popular.
The background story of the tune is a bit more mysterious than that of the lyrics. It was first written down in the 1850s by Jane Ross, when a street performer’s rendition of the tune caught her attention. Her version was passed along and eventually published as “Londonderry Air,” named after the Irish county in which Ross heard it. The tune’s history is thought to stretch back even further than that, but exactly where it came from cannot be pinned down for certain.
A favorite origin tale involves legendary harpist Rory O’Cahan, although there is little hard evidence to tie him to the tune. The story goes that O’Cahan collapsed outdoors one night and was awakened by a beautiful melody. He turned to see fairies playing on his harp, and O’Cahan himself later captured the tune they had played. Though the story is fanciful, it can’t be denied that the song has certainly held a type of a magic throughout the centuries.
Wherever it came from, the has captivated its listeners. Paired with the “Danny Boy” lyrics, it has tapped into deep human emotions in a way only music can do.
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