Millions in Ireland, Northern Ireland and throughout the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th, commemorating the death some 1,556 years ago of the patron saint of Ireland. While much is still unknown about St. Patrick, who wasn’t actually born in Ireland but in what was at the time Roman Britain, Ireland’s influence on American culture (green beer and corned beef and cabbage notwithstanding) is undeniable, especially when it comes to music.
Throughout his lifetime, Arkansas-born Johnny Cash was obsessed with his ancestry. His family’s roots could be traced back to Scotland’s Malcolm IV, who ruled in the 12th century. In his later years, according to daughter Rosanne Cash, her father would use the name Malcolm when he had to be admitted to hospitals.
Furthering the inexorable link between Ireland, Scotland and England is the creation of a song Cash would record in both 1965 and 2002 and also perform on TV in 1970. The melody of “Danny Boy,” the mournful ballad which has long been associated with Ireland, originated as “Londonderry Air,” and derived its name from the city and county in Northern Ireland, which is ruled by the British and has been at the center of a long-standing dispute between Irish unionists and nationalists, the latter of whom support a united Ireland and refer to the same location as Derry. The melody, therefore, has also been referred to as “The Air from County Derry,” or “The Derry Air.”
Furthering the songs political and cultural ramifications, the “quintessentially Irish” lyrics to “Danny Boy,” were not written by an Irishman but by British lawyer Frederic Weatherly, who penned them in 1910, and after receiving a manuscript of the tune from his sister, who was in Colorado in 1912 and heard it being played by Irish immigrants, put the words and music together and published the song to great success in 1913.
Fast-forward 52 years to Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special LP, which mixed a couple of Cash originals with Bob Dylan covers and such country standards as “The Long Black Veil” and “Wildwood Flower.” It’s here that the Man in Black first recorded “Danny Boy,” in a stark version that is prefaced by Cash recalling a story his father had told him about an Irish immigrant named Daniel and his sweetheart, Rosalie, a supposed inspiration for the song lyrics.
On February 18th, 1970, country and pop singer Jimmie Rodgers (sometimes billed Jimmie F. Rodgers so as to not be confused with the same-named “Father of Country Music”), appeared on The Johnny Cash Show, with the two performing the tune as a duet both sung and spoken. Rodgers explains one interpretation of the lyrics, noting that it’s a story “written during the Irish rebellion” of a grandfather telling his grandson that he had to go away to war. That’s not quite accurate because the song’s lyrics predate Ireland’s Easter uprising by six years, but regardless of its true origins, its meaning or its often-disputed place in Ireland’s abundantly rich musical heritage, it certainly held Cash’s interest. In 2002, one year before his death, he rerecorded “Danny Boy,” backed by a haunting church organ, for American IV: The Man Comes Around, the Grammy-winning LP which also featured his unforgettable version of “Hurt.”