February 6, 1965, Brunswick Records released a contemporary version of the old "Irish" ballad "Danny Boy" by soul singer Jackie Wilson. The record doesn't really fit with what was the popular sound of that year. The R&B charts were topped with songs like "Sugar Pie Honeybunch", "Midnight Hour," "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", " Rescue Me', "Shotgun", Otis Redding's "Respect" and the Top 40 charts were filled with stuff like "Wooley Booley" and "Help Me Rhonda". The arrangement was a departure from the floor-filling dance records Wilson had been been scoring with the previous year, It was a return to his more "traditional pop" sound of the late 1950s. In fact, Wilson had recorded two earlier, less dramatic versions of "Danny Boy" in the 1950s.
Why would Brunswick Records take a chance by releasing something so random and seemingly out-of-step with the times -This orchestral, sentimental, opera-meets-R&B version of a song written at the dawn of World War 1? What in the hell does "Danny Boy" have to do with 1960s America, and specifically 1960s Black America? And how could this record make it to #25 on the R&B chart, surrounded by thumpers like "Nowhere To Run" and funky grit like "Ride Your Pony"?
When it comes to music appreciation and interpretation it all has to do with context. Lets first consider the content of the song. Danny Boy is about being called to battle, away from familiarity and into danger. It's about the very probable possibility of death, and a call to remember those who have fallen on the battlefield. Finally, it brings forth a sentimental longing for the homeland one was forced to leave behind.
I suppose the obvious connection would be the growing U.S. involvement with the Vietnam War, however African-Americans were fighting wars on multiple fronts in 1965. The Civil Rights Movement most certainly was a call to battle, and just the summer before this record's release, the bodies of three murdered Civil Rights workers (Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner) were famously discovered in Mississippi. Additionally, less than two months prior to the release of "Danny Boy," Jackie Wilson's good friend Sam Cooke (who also recorded Danny Boy in 1958) was murdered. * Many folks at the time believed Cooke's murder was a conspiracy to silence him for his Civil Rights activism and growing power as a Black business man. Actually many folks still believe this. On top of that, Malcolm X was assassinated just a couple of weeks after this record's release. So, when considering all of these factors, it makes a lot of sense that a song of mourning for loved ones lost in battle would be embraced in the winter of 1965.
Though admittedly, "Danny Boy" had already been no stranger to Black vocalists Paul Robeson, legendary entertainer and activist, used to perform the song alongside other songs of freedom and struggle. Certainly the theme of being forced to leave loved ones behind for a strange land and unknown danger not only speaks to the African-American experience in a variety of ways, but also echos many themes found in spirituals.
Other versions of Danny Boy include:
Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles - 1964
Sam Cooke 1958
Al Hibbler 1955
the Dixie Cups - 1965
Sugar Boy Crawford 1964
Sil Austin 1959
Art Tatum 1955
Linda Hopkins 1959
Sam The Man Taylor 1962
Mahalia Jackson 1963
Nolan Strong and the Diablos
Harry Belafonte 1957
and many more.
So, this is my way of celebrating St. Patrick's Day with you. And every year I play this for my grandmother.
This is Jackie Wilson lipsynching to his record. Enjoy.
DJ Action Slacks
I'm excited to highlight some of my favorite records in a variety of genres (soul, R&B, classic country, rockabilly, oldies, garage rock, etc). These won't all necessarily be "dance" records per se. They will all be records that I believe deserve a special listen. I simply love good music, rare or not. Hopefully you will spend some time here and love music right along with me! Lets give this a shot!