Great Irish Funeral Music: "Danny Boy" Revisited

Renee Fleming's performance of "Danny Boy" at Senator John McCain's funeral puts the great old ballad back in the public eye. Just hearing it interpreted by a woman, instead of the usual male tenor, made it thrilling.

Originally known as "Londonderry Air" and particularly beloved by anyone Irish, the anthem can be well employed at almost any funeral. Here are some ideas:

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON'T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that many of us haven't really been listening to the words! (Take note, in stanza three: an "Ave" means "a prayer.")

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling From glen to glen, and down the mountain side The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying 'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow 'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying And I am dead, as dead I well may be You'll come and find the place where I am lying And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here's a super great "Danny Boy," totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here's Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you're bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here's "Danny Boy" played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing "Danny Boy" beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered "Danny Boy" is Sinead O'Connor's, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any "Danny Boy" funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don't neglect the grandchildren! They can sing "Danny Boy" at a grandfather's funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).

4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT "DANNY BOY" AFTER THE FUNERAL'S CLOSING. This idea might not be everyone's pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine "Danny Boy" played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it's okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.