by John Howard Farmer
God even rehabs music
Years ago I wept listening to “The Holy City” at the funeral of a teen, a teacher and lawyer’s boy, at Freemason Baptist Church, Norfolk. The lad had considerable roots in the Irvington Baptist Church. I had previously sung the song a number of times and a few since.
The poem, turned song was by Frederick Edward Weatherly (1848-1929), a British poet who graduated from Oxford in 1871; 20 years before our Irvington Church was constructed. Weatherly was at Oxford first as a student, later, a teacher, Still later he completed studies as a lawyer, leaving a legacy of over 1,500 songs.
During the same time period with Weatherly, Katherine Hinkson Tynan (1861-1931) had written a poem titled “All in The April Evening.” Her syrupy, sentimental poem assigned to the tune Londonderry reads: “Would God I were a tender apple blossom, that floats and falls from off the twisted bough, to lie and faint within your silken bosom, within your silken bosom as that does now, or would I were a little burnished apple, for you to pluck me, gliding by so cold, while sun and shade your robe of lawn will dapple, your robe of lawn and your hair’s spun gold.” Words and tune remained united from the late 1800s to 1912. It wafted the ocean on both sides and sat determined in a collection of works commonly known as parlor music. Fewer and fewer songbooks of the time took notice and its popularity faded somewhat.
In 1912, at the age of 64, Frederick Weatherly received a letter from his sister-in-law on tour in America. She sent him the tune Londonderry Aire, with Tynan’s words. She felt that the tune could better serve her poet friend and brother-in-law. For some odd reason Weatherly had never heard the tune, though he knew the Emerald Isle countryside well enough.
Londonderry, or Derry, is a port on the Foyle River some 65 miles above Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where my bride Hazel and I once stood for a photo on what is now called the “Peace Bridge.”
Weatherly had written a poem earlier and refined it upon receipt of the Irish tune sent him from America. He liked the tune and added his eight-line poem “Danny Boy,” a perfect match for the tune Londonderry Aire.
Want to sing a few bars? Here tis: “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, from glen to glen and down the mountainside. The summer’s gone and all the roses falling, it’s you, its you must go and I must bide. But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow, or when the valley’s hushed with snow… and I shall hear though soft you tread above me and my grave will warmer, sweeter be; for you will kneel and tell me that you love me and I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.” What a sad, but sweet song.
It found resurgence in the tours of the Three Tenors and thusly sung on stage at our Lancaster Middle School. It is a fine whistling tune as well. No one knows the original set of words that first accompanied the magnetic tune. But “Danny Boy” won out over all the known verses hands down. It was especially true for me: once a boy tenor. The song now escapes me; as my voice range has lowered and breath thins.
Some years ago our organist, Gloria Lee Jones, fired up the tune as a prelude. As we came into the sanctuary I noticed tear-rimmed eyes all across the room. Many were mouthing the words, others just humming. At the end of the service I commented on the tune and noticed her book. What a shock I had: the tune was rehabbed and matched to a popular hymn.
Over the intertwining years sopranos and tenors have sung the piece. It is always well received. Do you still have the tune in your ear? Then try these words: “Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise, for it was grace that bought my liberty; I do not know just why he came to love me so, he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary, to view the cross where Jesus died for me; how marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul, he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”
It all goes to remind me that God is always in the rehab business, just like this song with perhaps countless sets of verses penned by known and unknown poets across the ages. I am so thankful that one such poet brought the tune to church. She was none other than the late county singer Dotty Rambo (1934-2008). Her words were copyrighted in 1967.
The tune is amazing in itself. It is an infectious one. I really don’t think of it as “Danny Boy” any more. It so sets the mood for my heart to be continually receiving the blessings that God has for me. It is amazing that God can still see my needs, forgives my sins and overlooks my faults.
Why do we Christians spend so much time evaluating each other? When God looks at me, he sees the best in me. Often when others look at me they see my flaws. Aren’t you glad that God doesn’t deal with us like we deal with others?