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Getting to the Heart of 'Danny Boy'


It was the first song played at Elvis' funeral. Its melody is so beautiful that it's said to have been written by fairies. Its lyrics are about a nation's soul, or about a mother and son. The words to this unofficial anthem of Ireland were written by an Englishman. It has been performed by everyone from Tom Jones to Jim Reeves, Paul Robeson to Conway Twitty, Ben Webster to the Pogues.

That's just some of the information gathered in "Danny Boy 'In Sunshine or in Shadow,' " a 40-minute documentary that tells you more than you ever thought there was to know about "Danny Boy," one of those taken-for-granted staples of popular music.

If you've filed it away as a sentimental antique, the program's evocations of its powerful hold on the Irish psyche--and its ability to transcend borders and attain universal applications--are a revelation.

A member of Parliament sees it in the context of Ireland's history of massive emigration. For Marianne Faithfull, it's a distillation of personal loss. In the show's single most touching moment, boxer Barry McGuigan recalls his father's rendition of "Danny Boy" in the ring before Barry's championship bout. TV footage of the moment explains why it would bring a tear to the son's eye.

Musicologists discuss the song's history, musicians rhapsodize and analyze with varying degrees of eloquence. (Oddly, although the tale of grief and separation certainly resonates with a feminine sensibility, only one woman's views--Faithfull's--are solicited.) Many of the subjects are placed in distractingly beautiful landscapes.

The real heart of the show, though, is the song itself. There are quick, vintage clips of Jackie Wilson, Harry Belafonte, et al, as well as performances filmed for this show by, among others, Eric Clapton, Sinead O'Connor, Faithfull and Shane MacGowan, as well as musicians familiar mainly to aficionados of Irish music.

And if you think "Danny Boy" is one of those tunes that's hard to get out of your head, wait until you've sat through this show. It will be permanently engraved.

* "Danny Boy 'In Sunshine or in Shadow' " airs at 9:45 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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