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Searching for 'Danny Boy'

A trip to Old Town's Irish pubs shed light on the meaning of an old Irish standard.

When St. Patrick's Day appears on the calendar each year, two guarantees are certain: That on the evening of March 17, everyone from the Gaelic speaking Irish-Americans to the celebration-prone non-Irish will raise a boisterous toast of thankfulness for Irish culture; and, shortly following that toast, they will fill the halls of any Irish pub with a swaying, inspired rendition of the Irish standard "Danny Boy." The mark of a great song, "Danny Boy" connects with an audience by evoking emotion, but not every green-clad party hound knows the song's connection with the Emerald Isle during World War I. A trip to two of Old Town Alexandria's Irish Pubs might help clear this up.

PROBABLY THE MOST REQUESTED song during the St. Patrick's Day fervor, "Danny Boy" has been recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presely, Judy Garland and even Tom Jones.

"I've never gone a night where people don't ask for it," said Galway, Ireland native Patrick O'Flarherty after a performance at Pat Troy's in Old Town Alexandria. "I've already played it six to eight times today and on St. Patrick's Day I'll play it twice a set."

O'Flarherty, a former member of the New Orleans Celtic band 'The Poor Clares,' who achieved some success with their 1997 release "Change of Habit", doesn't mind playing "Danny Boy" if the crowd wants to hear it.

"If it makes people happy I'll play it," he laughed. "And it does because they ask for it all the bloody time."

Double Down, the house band at the King Street pub Murphy's, fields requests for "Danny Boy" nightly.

"Its got that great thing where the melody expresses the same emotion as the lyrics," said Double Down bassist, David Teeple. "It's a poignant tale and its got all the elements."

While the marriage of lyric and melody is interesting, the story behind the song is equally so.

A QUICK BROWSE through the depths of the internet provide a variety of speculations about the song's meaning. While some see it as a song about America-bound immigrants leaving their families, other ideas suggest an ancient Irish Chieftain bidding farewell to a son preparing for battle. Although still a mystery, the most common theory, also supported by Brad Hayford, guitarist for Double Down, places the foundation of the song in early 20th century history.

"Its lyrics are from World War I," said Hayford. "A father who already had three sons killed in the war sings a song for his last son."

Written in 1912 by English lawyer Frederic Edward Weatherly, the lyrics were set to the tune of "Londonderry Air," a song which actually dealt with the volatile colonial relationship between England and Northern Ireland. As many know, Weatherly's re-written version of the tune begins "Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling." Referring to the recruiting methods of the British Army, British officers would often be accompanied by local band regiments when gathering more soldiers. The remaining stanzas of the song suggest the passing of time, accompanied with the ominous sense of death and permanency.

"I try not to think about it too much or I have a hard time getting through it," admitted Hayford.

WHAT HAS BECOME the quintessential Irish song in America, O'Flarherty believes that despite it being written by an Englishman, it is the "Irish national anthem of Irish immigrants."

According to www.allmusic.com, an on-line music database powered by the All Media Guide, LLC, this song has been recorded on over 800 albums by popular musicians. Which begs the questions, "Which is your favorite version?"

According to Teeple, the best version he has ever heard is a recording by opera star Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

When O'Flarherty wants to hear "Danny Boy" he prefers the version by Christy Moore, an Irish musician in the same vein as Woody Guthrie. With just the sound of a voice and the Bohdrán, a traditional Irish drum made from goatskin, "Its the weirdest version you will ever hear," said O'Flarherty.

So this St. Patrick's Day, when cheering the Emerald Isle with your beverage of choice, don't forget to spare a toast for "Danny Boy" and the musician who will gladly field your request — again and again.

"I love playing it because people love it," said Teeple. "It always brings back a memory or evokes a feeling."