Lonesome Onry and Mean: A Brief History of "Danny Boy" - Evergreen But Not Exactly Irish
The Pogues are only one week away, so no time like the present to reflect on Irish music. For many Americans, no song epitomizes Irish music like "Danny Boy." Lonesome Onry and Mean was gently prodding my Irish and European friends at the boozer recently regarding their opinions about the top recorded versions of "Danny Boy" and was met with studied indifference and we-don't-know-how-to-explain-it-to-him sheepishness. Long and short of it, it doesn't seem that "Danny Boy" is anything the average Houston-Irish citizen cares about, or would be seen dead acting as if they ever cared about. Something told LOM we weren't going to find a Pogues version of the song on YouTube. Oh, well, no one ever hung out with this hard-drinking crowd for their cultural enlightenment. Perhaps the problem our Irish fellow imbibers have with the song is that it was written by an English lawyer - exactly the kind of thinking that has mucked up the Middle East for years. Whatever the nationality and politics of author Frederick Weatherly, the song has struck a chord across ethnicities, generations, and genres. LOM can hardly remember a time until recently that the song wasn't in some sort of vogue.
As full-fledged West Texans, all we know is that the song seems to have been around our whole lives. My earliest memory of it is as the theme for the Danny Thomas black-and-white sitcom Make Room for Daddy , probably around 1957. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to versions of "Danny Boy."
Looking back as far as 1939, Glenn Miller's big band gave the tune a major treatment, while torch singer Judy Garland recorded the song several times and featured it in her live shows at the apogee of her career. And Ray Price's 1967 Billboard Top 10 cut reminds us again he wasnt that far from Tony Bennett when it came to being a pure saloon ballad singer. You'd need a Bel-Tone hearing aid not to realize that without the steel guitar, Price's is a N.Y. lounge arrangement and has zero to do with any Nashville marketing plan.
Sam Cooke recorded a soul version, crooner Jim Reeves recorded a Nashville ballad, Link Wray recorded it a la Link Wray, while hippie-folk chanteuse Judy Collins and calypso-pop singer Harry Belafonte also lent different interpretations that sold significant copies. But maybe the most interesting and American interpretation of the song was Conway Twitty's Elvis-like rockabilly version (above). Moving into the recent past, the list gets ridiculous: Johnny Cash in 1965; Patti LaBelle's 1964 take that went to No. 76 on the Billboard charts; Cher's 1969 version, the same year Tom Jones cut the song; Roy Orbison's 1972 cut of the song remains a gold standard. It becomes a blur: Elvis, 1976; Tony Bennett, '87; Carly Simon, 1990; Texas' own "Pavarotti of the Plains:" Don Walser, 1996; Diana Krall, 1999. According to Wikipedia, only - only - about 20 more recordings of the song have been cut since 2000, and they are probably under-estimating. Like "The Eyes of Texas," "Danny Boy" is the epitome of evergreen.
For LOM, Eva Cassady's earnest, honest, bell-chime voice wraps around the song and its sentiment perfectly. In her short but storied life, she left us one of the most potent and immediate interpretations of the song ever recorded. See you at the Pogues, October 29, House of Blues.
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