During what may well be one of the most sombre St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in recent years, we thought we’d watch Johnny Cash, the ultimate country crooner, take us down a solemn road with his cover of Irish standard ‘Danny Boy’.
We hear you, the American icon surely couldn’t perform this song with more earnest emotion than a traditional Irishman, but such has been the impact of Ireland on the birth of modern America that almost anyone with a vague connection to the Emerald Isle is willing to proclaim themselves lucky, buy hideous shamrocks, and drink a pint of the black stuff.
One such artist who has been fascinated by his heritage is none other than Johnny Cash. The singer can trace his roots back to Scotland’s Malcolm IV, who ruled the country in the 12th Century and would be a part of Cash’s interest in Ireland, Scotland and England. To cement it, Cash would take on the Irish standard ‘Danny Boy’ three times in his career.
The song’s tune can be traced back to the mournful ballad known as ‘Londonderry Air’ in reference to the city in Northern Ireland. The city has been at the centre of the dispute between Irish unionists and nationalists, with the song often being referred to as simply ‘The Derry Air’ to remove the connection to British rule.
‘Danny Boy’ is, therefore, steeped in a fair amount of confrontation and it doesn’t end there. The lyrics to the song, often thought of as quintessentially Irish, were actually written by British lawyer Frederic Weatherly who wrote the words in 1910. In 1912, Weatherly heard the tune from his sister who was living in Colorado and had picked up the tune from Irish immigrants. Weatherly put the words and the tune together and published ‘Danny Boy’ in 1913.
Cash, like many of us, would’ve likely been unaware of the history of the song and was captured instead by the ballad’s irresistible imagery and tune. The Man in Black takes on the song for his Orange Blossom Special LP, alongside some Bob Dylan songs and later performed the track on his TV show in 1970.
It is this performance that has caught our attention. Cash was joined by Jimmie F. Rodgers who joined him to sing a duet on the classic number. While Rodgers’ attempts to add some context to the lyrics are unfounded (the song pre-dates the Easter uprising), his dedication to the song’s sentiment is undeniable.
That said it was Cash who really connects with the song, delivering a sumptuous cover of the Irish standard. So while we may not be celebrating the patron saint of Ireland the way we normally would, we can at least doff our caps to the Emerald Isle.