Fred Weatherly, a classicist by training, a barrister by profession, a poet and lyricist by avocation, wrote literally thousands of songs in his time and although chances are good that you’ve never heard of any of them (with one exception), your great-grandparents generation knew them well. Back in the day of parlor pianos, popular music was a home-made commodity, and best sellers were in the sheet music. (Anyone could get into the act. My own great-great-grandfather added at least one forgotten classic to the pile.)
Big time success came relatively late, notably with the World War One classic Roses of Picardy, which, if not quite up there with in name recognition with Over There or Pack up Your Troubles or It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, is still sung. You’ll hear it at the opening of Downton Abbey.
And then there’s Danny Boy.
The story goes that Weatherly’s sister got him the sheet music from George Petrie‘s book, The Ancient Music of Ireland, for something called The Londonderry Air, itself something of obscure origin (perhaps 16th century, perhaps Irish, perhaps Scottish lowlands). An affecting tune, and various people took a stab at giving it lyrics, notably Alfred Percival Graves (father of Robert Graves, and something of a poet in his own right) who came up with not one but two settings: “Emer’s Farewell” and “Erin’s Apple-blossom”.
Not a one of them was a patch on Danny Boy.
We’re talking 1913 here, a bad time for Ireland, and Weatherly’s hope was that the song would inspire men of good will on both sides to drop the fighting and the killing and the bleeding and the dying. Well, nice idea, and we can hope that for a few it may have done.
In any event, certainly it ranks among the best of tears-in-the-beer songs.
There are worse legacies to leave.
Frederick Weatherly, Piano and Gown