Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Danny Boy

From Glen to Glen
When we moved to the US in the early '90s, I promptly started junior high school in a small New England town. The first thing I remember about walking into the classroom, was the shock of green cardboard shamrocks strung up all over the walls and a large banner declaring "Erin Go Bragh." (That's not how you spell it, a friend from Cork would later wrinkle her nose. But never mind.) Our teacher was fiercely Irish, as were at least half of the students. Second or third generation mainly, and, truth be told, most of them ethnically mixed. But Irish identities had a way of dominating in those days - when the economic boom had not yet hit the Emerald Isle, when South Boston still had romantic notoriety, and when House of Pain's Jump Around played several times a day on MTV. Most chose to express this identity through visual iconology: shamrocks, leprechauns, bright kelly green, friendship rings, and abundant use of faux-celtic fonts. But soon fate brought the opportunity to also express it musically.

In those days, our school had a rather famous a cappella choir, led by our passionate and popular music teacher, Mr. McKenna. It wasn't just anyone who could join this elite group. There were limited spots. The annual tryouts involved weeks of preparation from hopefuls and bitter tears from those who did not make it. But those of us who made it... my goodness, we felt special. In the mornings, we went to choir practice instead of home room. We wore beautiful uniforms. We stood side by side, in a tight formation on metal risers. Labeled a strong Soprano, I still remember my place: 3rd row, 5th from the right. Our choir recorded albums. Our choir preformed in competitions and won. Once a year we even travelled to compete in the national finals, inevitably returning with medals.

We were one of the best, Mr. McKenna would tell us, again and again, beaming at our fresh-scrubbed teenage faces, our teary eyes and our chapped lips from hours of singing. And we were one of the best because we worked at it. Because we rehearsed until each piece was perfect. And if it wasn't perfect (his face would turn serious now, almost stormy), we did not perform it. Not at a local Christmas concert, and certainly not at competition. Was that understood by each and every one of us? It was.

The national finals happened in May. Competing choirs would select their performance pieces in September, then spend the entire school year rehearsing them. The year I entered the 8th grade, Mr. McKenna gathered us to announce the competition selection with an air of festivity: For our main piece, we would be singing Danny Boy. As he distributed the sheet music, it was clear that the piece was very, very dear to him.

With tears in his eyes, Mr. McKenna talked about Ireland. How beautiful it was and how special his visit there with his wife and children had been - a place where his great grandfather had once lived and farmed. Later, as we struggled with the song, he talked about visualising the glens and imagining Danny Boy's plight. We tried our best, although most of us did not know what glens were exactly.

It was a beautiful, but complicated piece. Or maybe the arrangement Mr. McKenna had chosen was complicated, his judgment clouded by a reverence for the song's Irishness. Overly nuanced harmonies, notes held too long for our young lungs, sharp transitions from low notes to high. We were a good choir, but we were amateurs. We were a motivated bunch of kids, but we only had so much energy to give, after our classes and homework and turbulent teenage love-lives.

In fairness, we were doing fine with Danny Boy. We were getting there. But for Mr. McKenna's liking, we were not getting there fast enough. So he panicked, and he pushed us. With passionate pep talks and hours of extra rehearsals, he pushed and he pushed. He pushed until the melody of Danny Boy began to sound like nails against a chalkboard to our ears. He pushed until the lyrics lost all meaning and each repetition felt like a seizure-induced loop. He pushed until, instead of inspiring a breakthrough, Mr. McKenna broke our spirits.

Having come down with the flu, I did not join the choir in that year's finals. I did not witness the mass hysteria and weeping after, for the first time in its 12 year history, our choir failed to earn a medal at the competition. I only saw my peers' dejected faces when they returned home empty handed. I only saw the careless wrinkles in their uniforms at our next local performance and the way they slouched on the risers, with Mr. McKenna not bothering to chide us for either transgression.

We never talked about it. But deep down we all connected our choir's fall from grace with this attempt at a perfect rendition of Danny Boy. The piece was simply too personal, too precious for Mr. McKenna; he gave in to the rawness of his emotions and lost perspective. The following year, when I was already in high school, we heard that Mr. McKenna stepped down as music teacher and moved away. We were told he had health problems, and there were whispers of a nervous breakdown. It was not until years later that we learned he divorced his wife of 30 years and married one of his former students (by then a high school graduate, aged 19), which prompted parents to call for his resignation.

I have not thought about any of this in years. But I think about it now, in the mornings, as I lock up my bike in the town center of Limavady, Northern Ireland. There is a contemporary sculpture next to the cafe where I like to work. It is vaguely glen-shaped, in an abstract sort of way, and engraved with the lyrics to Danny Boy. Across the street is the colourful Corner Bar, its walls painted with murals containing more references to the song. And a helpful inscription explains the connection: "It was in Limavady that the famous melody 'Danny Boy' was noted down by Jane Ross from a tune played by a blind street fiddler named Jimmy McCurry." The original name of the melody was actually Londonderry Air, written by Englishman Frederic Weatherly. But never mind. It's been 20 years since I sang Danny Boy and I still remember the lyrics.

29 comments:

  1. This is the weird thing about Boston - half of its citizens are more Irish than those Irish people in Ireland.

    The comedian Russell Peters put it nicely this way:
    "- Are you American?
    - No, I'm Irish!!
    - Where were you born?
    - Boston!
    - And your father?
    - Boston!
    - Your grandfather?
    - Boston?
    - His father?
    - Boston!!
    - Then, how the hell are you Irish?!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find it funny that being Amercian is not good enough as an identity for some. My family goes back to the time of William Penn, and I do not have much of an identity other than "American". Not quite native American, but stlll. I would primarily call myself American, then a "Philadelphian" but don't see the need for more than that.

      Delete
    2. I'm pretty sure everyone's family goes ALL the way back. I'm not sure how it could be otherwise...

      Maybe you mean something else?

      Delete
  2. I thoroughly enjoyed "Danny Boy". Thank you for this post and all your posts. The last sentence had me looking up the use of "sang" vs. "sung" which I also enjoyed. I guess I would have used sung, but it seems that both might be correct.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This post brings back a lot of memories. When I was in sixth grade our school had an all-boys choir that competed in the regional music competition, and Danny Boy was one of the songs we sang. Nary an Irishman among us, by the way. As I recall, we killed it. Got a "1," which was the top mark. Sadly, it was the end of my singing career. My voice changed, and I couldn't sing a lick after that. Our director, Mr. Spencer, was a swell guy. We used to shag fly balls that he hit for us during recess.
    Excellent post.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I discovered this blog within the last ten days. I am just getting back into riding after 20 years away. I had a lovely bike hanging in my garage, but it was dusty and neglected. (The bike is a custom Nobillette f/f, tutti campy, brooks, cinelli. Very lovely.)

    My bike and I have been reunited. I have been riding every day for the last month. As they say, "it is just like riding a bike."

    I am American, but grandparents are from Donegal. My family was not nostalgic about it. Things were better for them here and they knew it. My father used to say that "Irish Americans would do anything for Ireland except live there."

    But we knew this song. I must have 20 different recordings of it, including Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jackie Wilson, et al. It is a magical song. I can see why your teacher obsessed. Some people think that it should be the national anthem when Ireland is reunited.

    Basically it is a song about going far away and then coming back home again. ("Come ye back, when summer is in the meadow."). It describes the Irish experience of leaving home, and the longing to return. So it also describes some rides I was on in my younger days, when I had wandered too far for too long and wondered if if I would ever see my home again.

    So Velouria, thanks for this site, and this post in particular.

    ReplyDelete
  5. ..a bit sad...like an Irish story should be.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I enjoyed reading your post.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm wondering if Mr. McKenna would appreciate this memory.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You never know, he might. But regardless I highly doubt my jr high music teacher (whose name has been changed for the story) reads this blog.

      Delete
  8. Moving and beautifully written.

    ReplyDelete
  9. When I was growing up as an Irish-Catholic, Danny Boy was often sung at funerals. I'd venture to guess that the season you spent hours practicing it, he had suffered the loss of someone dear to him.

    As others have said, your essay is lovely. I think the information about his affair with the student is extraneous and when you publish the piece in your collection, should be edited out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting you think that. Re-reading the post (it was written spur of the moment- not as part of any collection), including the name of the student struck me as distracting and playing too much into the Irish theme (her name was also changed, but the real name was equally super-Irish). But including the fact of the student in itself feels right.

      Delete
  10. Velouria, thank you for this heartfelt memoire.
    The over-intensity and strive toward "perfection" by Mr. McKenna is a condition of which we must all be cautious.
    I've been involved in a local choral group here on San Juan Island in Washington State for many years, and I think a key to our success and personal enjoyment is our director, a woman from Texas with an infectious sense of humor. When she gets intense, she loves to call it a "come to Jesus! moment," and we all have a good laugh. Sounds like Mr. McKenna forgot to laugh. Singing, particularly in groups, is wonderful, but remember to keep it fun. Just like riding your bike.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I hope you don't actually lock your bike up leaning against a piece of art. That would be sad.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It is for posts like this (along with the ever-explorative cycling life) that I keep reading your lovely blog when I have a (rare) open window. I feel cycling for you is a vehicle to life, not a meme, not a political movement. Loved this.

    ReplyDelete
  13. When I was young I longed for a horse. I was as passionate about horses as I am now of bicycles. On my sixteenth birthday my Mom and a friend of the family purchased me a blood bay horse with black mane, tail and legs. His name was Danny Boy. He lives on in some of my best memories.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Great writing, Velouria. Really enjoyed the memories and your recounting of this story.
    -AMK

    ReplyDelete
  15. Being precious is the death of anything....holding on too tight, especially to sentiment, is a common problem with expression.

    ReplyDelete
  16. And may the road come up to meet you,Luka Bloom "the acoustic motor bike", HAND

    ReplyDelete
  17. I hope you don’t mind a correction: the Derry Air melody is Irish and most likely from the Roe Valley, but the lyrics to Danny Boy are English and written by Frederic Weatherly.

    The origin of the tune is uncertain, but it is normally associated with two harpists from the Limavady area—Rory Dall O’Cahan and Denis O’Hampsey.

    Rory Dall O’Cahan is often credited with writing the melody that the Derry Air is based on, with the original tune called O’Cahan’s Lament. (O’Cahan also wrote Tabhair Dom Do Lamh, which is the beautiful tune my wife walked down the aisle to on our wedding day)

    Denis O’Hampsey, who lived in Magilligan, played a similar tune that was recorded at the Belfast Harp festival in 1792.

    But in truth, no really knows for sure who wrote the tune. What is known is that Jane Rose heard it, or something similar to it, being played on the street and wrote it down. And whatever the origins of the tune, it is a good example of our shared heritage in the north.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was most likely that prolific Irish songwriter O'Nonymous (his British cousin A. Nonymous is equally known).

      It's a lovely tune, though if one has spent any amount of time playing Irish music professionally one can get a bit tired of playing it!

      Delete
  18. Nice post. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Quite a story. You've got a way with words, V.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Reminds me of how my orchestra in university attempted a pretty ambitious piece for a concert. It was giving us fits every rehearsal. In our case somehow - god knows how - on the night of the concert it came out damned near perfect. Our conductor was stunned afterwards and made no attempt at a rational explanation of how we pulled it off when I talked to him afterwards!

    Being a flutist (at times) I've always identified the piece as "Londonderry Air." It frequently gets referred to as Londonderry Air - but with the emphasis slightly rearranged to change the meaning...

    I always just identify myself as Canadian. Patriotism aside, as my recent family history involves Scotland (and allegedly the Scots in our family were descended from Irish mercenaries), England, Wales, Russia, the Ukraine and Hungary this makes the answer a lot simpler.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hope you don't mind an aside but this beautiful story elicited a flashback.

    2nd grade.
    Catholic school
    Christmas recital
    Our class is going to sing the Lord's prayer
    Practice
    Sister Mary Katherine Margaret Caitlin O'Reilly Flanagan walks over to me, bends over and whispers in me ear in that heavy Irish brogue: "Joseph me lad woild ye please just mouth the words."

    Thanks for the memory.

    ReplyDelete