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I have performed traditional Irish music on multiple instruments for more than 15 years. I've played in bands and jam sessions in bars and on stages from New York City to Germany to Ireland. I count many professional Irish musicians among my ranks of friends.

And I have a deep and abiding hatred of "Danny Boy."

Can't. Even. Stand. It.

I will leave the room or frantically paw at the "next track" button if it's played in my vicinity. I flatly refuse to perform it.

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Casey Phillips

People often call Englishman Frederic Weatherly's ballad "sentimental," and I certainly agree with them. But I wonder whether these fans understand the flavor of that adjective as set forth by the lexographers at Merriam-Webster and Oxford. They define sentimentality as: "Having or expressing strong feelings in a way that may seem foolish or excessive."

I, for one, agree with the experts, because "Danny Boy" is nothing if not melodramatic, not to mention sappy and entirely overplayed. This is especially true for Irish musicians, who are inundated with requests for it almost as often as Southern rock bands are with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird."

Last week, I posted a neutrally worded request on Facebook to my musician friends to gauge their feelings about the song. Even when they called the melody "beautiful," they typically added caveats such as "overdone," "tired" and "not very Irish." (Did I mention it was written by an Englishman?)

Maybe my dislike stems from being suffocated by it. My father once purchased an album whose sole content was "Danny Boy" arranged for different instruments. "Danny Boy" on oboe, on harp, on clarinet and even — God save us all — on saxophone. This was the soundtrack to an entire holiday season. He thought it was wonderful. To the rest of us, it was as if Satan had nominated himself as the family's unofficial road trip deejay.

Even worse, "Danny Boy" is one of the most glaring examples of the "emerald spray paint" distillation of Ireland's rich culture into a handful of cheesy clichés. Think Chicago dyeing the river green or the people you encounter on St. Patrick's Day who pepper their sentences with the word "blarney" while wearing be-glittered, green top hats they picked up at Target.

Despite its English origins, the misplaced association of "Danny Boy" with Ireland is rampant. Practically any "Irish" music compilation you pick up will feature the song prominently, if not using it asthe title track. This is especially frustrating given that the Irish musical canon is practically overflowing with songs such as "Back Home in Derry" and "Parting Glass" that feature similar themes of loss and heartache and were actually written by Irish musicians.

To reduce a culture's musical tradition down to a single ballad is one thing; to select a theme song whose origins are in a country with a history of oppressing that culture is something else entirely. How would the Cherokee feel if we began including "Dixie" in gas station CD compilations of "Songs of Native America"?

But none of these reasons are why I hate "Danny Boy." Admittedly, they don't make me love it, either. They are why it irritates me, and why I roll my eyes whenever someone shouts it at the stage.

The reason I hate the song? That's much more personal.

When I first started playing music 20 years ago and demonstrated a passing talent for it, my grandfather approached me with a request to play "Danny Boy" at his funeral. (He's still alive, just to be clear.) I was 10 years old, so this was understandably traumatic.

My grandfather and I were exceptionally close then, just as we are today. To be forced to confront the idea of his mortality at such a young age seems cosmically unjust.

Naturally, I promised him I would honor his request. In the meantime, however, every time I hear "Danny Boy," it makes me think of the inevitability of losing him. That makes me mad, and it makes me resentful. Then again, those are thoroughly Irish sentiments, so maybe I should listen to it more often.

But when the time comes, I will uphold my promise and play it for him. When I'm done, I will tread softly above him, bend and tell him I love him.

Then, I will retire the damned song forever.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

 

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