Frank Patterson: Danny Boy
Sam Cooke: Danny Boy
The Pogues: Danny Boy
Richard Thompson: Danny Boy
Jackie Wilson: Danny Boy
Elvis Presley: Danny Boy
“Danny Boy” has to a certain degree become the Irish-American anthem, with its overtones of exile, of loved family left behind, and the hazy prospect of return in the far future. So it’s a touch ironic that the tune – the “Londonderry Air” – is an anthem of Northern Ireland, that the lyrics were written by the Englishman Frederic Weatherly, that the song’s only about a hundred years old, and that the fist recording seems to be by a German singer. None of this means anything, of course; by now, there are any number of references to “Danny Boy in Irish-American culture, books that take almost every line of the lyrics as titles, and even a “Danny Boy” Premium Irish whisky (see picture). Any reference to the song is instant Hollywood shorthand for the Emerald Isle.
Before the song got wrapped up in manufactured Blarney, “Danny Boy” took roots in America in the ‘30’s and the ‘40s – promoted in part by versions by Bing Crosby and (in the movie Little Nellie Kelly) Judy Garland. In the 1950’s, it became one of a handful of ‘white’ standards that R&B artists added to their songbook, and at the same time, it drifted into the country repertory as well, (including Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash in 1965 and again in the American sessions at the end of his life).
As far as I go, there’s no recorded version anywhere that sounds as good as it does when sung sometime after 1 AM with a bunch of friends, all several sheets to the wind. But it seems wildly unjust to subject anyone not wearing beer headphones to that experience, so – a few judicious nominations.
My own personal favorite is by Frank Patterson, a classically trained tenor who decided to follow in the Irish tenor tradition established by the likes of John McCormack. This is the version that’s best known from the Thompson gun scene in Miller’s Crossing.
Sam Cooke covered it on his first secular album. Predictably, Cooke sang the hell out of it (compare Jackie Wilson's version, from his first album; he took it to some very unusual places that I’m not sure it was supposed to go to).
Finally, two down-to-earth takes: a reverent a capella cut by Cait O’Riordan and the Pogues from the unfortunate film Straight to Hell, and a live set-closer from Richard Thompson. Good stuff.
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