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Reflections by Rev. John Farmer

by John Howard Farmer

New words for an old song

Frederick Edward Weatherly (1848-1929) was a British poet who graduated from Oxford in 1871. He was there first as a student, then a teacher; even later, he completed studies as a lawyer.

Today, he is best remembered as a poet-songwriter with such credits as “The Holy City.” That song swelled my heart—and tears—at Freemason Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, during the funeral for Traylor Nunnally, two-and-a-half decades ago.

In the mid 1800s, Katharine 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 Margaret. She was 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.

Weatherly had written a poem earlier and refined it upon receipt of the Irish tune sent him from America. He liked the tune and placed his words thereupon. His eight-line poem “Danny Boy” was a perfect match for the tune “Londonderry Aire.”

Londonderry, or Derry, is a port on the Foyle River some 65 miles above Belfast, in Northern Ireland. One of my treasured vacation pictures of my Miss Hazel and her dutiful manservant, was when we were there on the foot and bike Peace Bridge (opened 2011). Derry tops the Scottish Highlands and is considered by some to remind them of our Blue Ridge Mountains.

Want to sing a few bars? “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, it’s 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…” What a sad, sweet song…

In bars, at funerals, wakes, and Irish celebrations throughout the entire British Empire, and across America, the tune and words are frequently sung. It even found resurgence in the tour of the Three Tenors, who performed on stage at our Kilmarnock 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.

Our recently retired organist, Gloria Lee Jones, once fired up the tune as a prelude. As the choir and pastor 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 an old 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.”

I am reminded 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 is none other than the late country singer Dotty Rambo (1950-2008).

The circa 1855 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 daily 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. It is such a gift that our God doesn’t deal with us, like we deal with others.

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