The Origin and Use of an Authentic Irish Folk Tune in American School Orchestra Arrangements

By Russell, Joshua A. | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Origin and Use of an Authentic Irish Folk Tune in American School Orchestra Arrangements

Russell, Joshua A., Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

Every orchestra director has, at some point in his or her career, dropped the first ictus of the baton and heard Ti-Do-Re-Mi played by the orchestra as they start on one of the many versions of "Londonderry Air." It is possible, however, that a much smaller number of directors have considered the origins of this music or if their current arrangement is an authentic representation of the original work. It is also possible that those responsible for arranging the melody for school orchestras are unaware of the long history of the work.

There is an emerging movement promoting the use of authentic folk music in the classroom. Although this is sometimes difficult to do, it is an imperative task, not only for the benefit of the students involved, but for the preservation of ancient music of all cultures as well. In Elliot Del Borgo's arrangement of "Londonderry Air," his notes in the score state that it dates "as far back as 1855." (1) It is true that George Petrie first published a piece named "Londonderry Air" in his collection of Irish music in 1855. The tune itself, however, dates back much further--to at least 1792 when Denis Hempson performed it in Belfast, Ireland, at the Belfast Harpers Festival, and nineteen-year-old Edward Bunting transcribed it under the name "The Young Man's Dream."

Bunting's work documenting the ancient Irish music performed at the Belfast Harpers Festival becomes even more important when one considers the era of cultural oppression enforced by the English Crown up to the late 1780s when the Penal Laws were finally repealed. Unfortunately, the Penal Laws and attempts to anglicize the island so severely impacted Irish culture and music that only ten harpers elected to participate in the Belfast Harpers Festival. As with much folk music, continual changes in performance practice, as well as the breakdown of the oral transmission of music from one generation to the next by Irish bards and musicians, has led to a possible lack of authenticity in the music as it is written for scholastic orchestras.


The impetus for this study was an examination of Edward Bunting's 1796 collection of Irish music in which one tune, "The Young Man's Dream," closely resembled "Oh Danny Boy." Due to the similarities between these two tunes the researcher sought out Bunting's manuscripts and biographical texts about him. This search led to several texts in which other authors have made similar claims. These findings directed the researcher to investigate the authenticity of works found in the modern repertory of scholastic orchestras.

The research authentication method relied on processes found in The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning regarding internal and external authentication of documents and artifacts. (2) In order to establish triangulation and to ensure the accuracy of facts, the researcher utilized multiple historical sources. In addition, the guidelines for authenticating primary documents were applied to information found in the Edward Weatherly Collection in the University of Colorado at Boulder Archives. (Edward was the brother of Frederick Weatherly, known as the author of the lyrics to "Oh Danny Boy.") University archivists authenticated these documents as they received the collection directly from the Weatherly estate in Ouray, Colorado. Authorship and provenance were determined to the best of the researcher's ability as well. The author also attempted to gather original documents of Bunting's writings, however, this proved to be impractical. The researcher's copy of Bunting's 1796 transcription of "The Young Man's Dream" was verified by the rare books curator at the University of Florida, where original copies of Bunting's works are housed.

Literature Review

Historical Texts

Seamus MacManus's text The Story of the Irish Race covers the historical perspective of Ireland and its people. (3) This book gives a detailed account of the history of the Irish people as well as an extensive account of the oppressive laws enforced upon the Irish people by the English Crown.

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