I was asked to play the piano for our local community commemorative service, and one of the songs I chose to play as folks were gathering was Londonderry Air. A famous, well loved Irish melody, it has been used in all sorts of settings with a variety of different lyrics too.
The tune may have its origins in the early 1600s from a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan, but many versions have arisen between then and now. Apparently Victorians avoided using the tune’s common name because it sounded too much like ‘London Derrière’ – probably not too PC to the Victorian ear! Instead, they preferred the name ‘Air from County Derry’.
The first time I heard the melody was with the lyrics “I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship, should set His love upon the sons of men…” These lyrics were penned by Irishman William Young Fullerton some time before 1932. But it is most famously known as ‘Danny Boy’ from the lyrics written by English lawyer Frederic Edward Weatherly.
Whatever words you are familiar with, the tune is striking and uplifting. It evokes a poignant mixture of sadness with beauty, and maybe that is why it is often used at funerals and war memorial services. But it also has a triumphant quality which builds from the beginning to the octave leap in the melody in the second to last line. It also has that sense of going away somewhere, but, like all good tunes, very successfully comes back home so you can head off on the journey all over again.
The harmony will vary with every version you hear. But there are so many possibilities that work so well, I found it hard to decide which I liked the most when recording my version of it recently. I’m sure I would do it differently another time. But whatever harmony is chosen, the melody is sure to be around for a long time to come.