Inevitably, the song has resonated most with those who have experienced loss – loss that includes ‘losing’ one’s own country – but who still believe in a bright new day. So 'Danny Boy' means a great deal to members of the Irish diaspora forced into exile, particularly in the States. Black Americans, too, have recognized the loss-hope dynamic in the tune. It’s cathartic, like the blues.
What particularly intrigued me when I started making this film was the number of versions recorded by country artists. It didn’t feel like coincidence. I knew they weren’t covering 'Danny Boy' just because it was a standard. They had to be tapping into the heartbreak center of the song.
In the film, I use Johnny Cash’s 1965 recording of 'Danny Boy' as the prism to investigate the appeal of the song to country artists. His daughter, Rosanne Cash, speaks of why it’s such a natural fit for poor white southerners and their tough, intense lives. While Larry Kirwan of the Irish-American band, Black 47, explains how 19th Century Irish immigrants brought their fiddles and music to the Appalachians. This subsequently influenced bluegrass – then country. With an ancient Irish tune, the 'Londonderry Air,' at the song’s musical heart, it was all beginning to make sense.
Songs like 'Danny Boy' that last 100 years are rare. They appear simple, but are beautifully complicated. You need a bunch of keys to unlock the mysteries of 'Danny Boy,' but I believe one of its most essential elements is its emotional dialectic – loss and hope, joy and pain, sunshine and shadow – and these lie at the very center of all our lives. (Read more.)