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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe

IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF THE FOLK TUNE 'DANNY BOY'!

Updated: Apr 6, 2023



arrangement of danny boy for string quartet
A brand new arrangement of 'Danny Boy' for string quartet

It’s very simple really. I want to include folk tunes on the site because I just love them and they remind me of past times in my life. But the real reason is that I just wanted to arrange my favourite folk tune and that is 'Danny Boy’!

‘Danny Boy’ is my favourite. The words were written by Fred Weatherley in 1910 to a different tune than the one we now know. Fred was then introduced to the melody 'Londonderry Air', thought to have been collected in the mid 19th century by a Jane Ross of Limavady, and he rewrote his words to fit them to this new melody. ‘Danny Boy’ as we know it was published in 1913.

A few years ago I did a concert with some other musicians at a beautiful old church, St. Peter's, in Bywell, in Northumberland.

It’s our family church and my father is organist and choir master there and it’s where my husband and I were married. The concert consisted of five musicians performing solos and duets. It took months to plan but on the night before the concert, when I was still at home in Birmingham, I realised there wasn’t a piece that we were all involved in. I managed, that evening, to cobble together a version of ‘Danny Boy’. We ran through it ten minutes before the end of the rehearsal, one hour before the concert and played it together as an encore at the end of the concert. It was one of the highlights of my professional life (even though it wasn’t a professional gig). It just worked so well and we all played and sang our hearts out. It brought the house down and when people came to talk to us at the end most people said that that was the piece in the concert they had enjoyed the most! One older audience member said that his father had sang it to him every night when he was a boy and hearing it then had moved him to tears. So I had to arrange ‘Danny Boy’. I had to include it on the site and it paved the way for me arranging more.


‘Ca’ the Yows’, meaning ‘Drive the sheep to the hills’, is another one of my absolute favourite tunes. But I’ve barely met anyone who knows it!


In 1794 Robert Burns heard it when it was sung by John Clunie, a school master from Markirch. It was first published in the Scots Musical museum, a collection of Scottish folk songs, in 1790. Burns described it as “...a beautiful song in the true old Scotch taste”. Robert Burns took the original words, altered some and added some new verses and it was then published that year by George Thomson.


I first heard ‘Ca’ the Yows’ when I was a teenager. I was obsessed with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and for my music A-level I did a project on his choral music. I bought a vinyl record of his opera ‘Riders to the Sea’, a very melancholy and rather depressing one act opera about fishermen drowning out at sea, and on the B-side (it was the 1980s!) was a collection of folk songs arranged by Vaughan Williams and one of those was ‘Ca’ The Yows’. I heard it and it absolutely captivated me. I actually started this arrangement of ‘Ca’ the Yows’ way back then and kept it all these years. There is an incredibly beautiful and moving performance of it that I heard on YouTube recently, sung by Kathleen Ferrier.


In 1794 Robert Burns heard it when it was sung by John Clunie, a school master from Markirch. It was first published in the Scots Musical museum, a collection of Scottish folk songs, in 1790. Burns described it as “...a beautiful song in the true old Scotch taste”. Robert Burns took the original words, altered some and added some new verses and it was then published that year by George Thomson.

The other two folk songs I’ve arranged and which are available to purchase on the site are ‘Mingulay Boat Song’ and ‘Skye Boat Song’. I’d like to talk about why I chose those two songs and give a bit of background on them in my next blog which will be going up on the site soon.


Thanks for reading!!





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