Dear Switchback fans,
Because I am part of a music conference, I received a mass-email from an agent seeking to do what every agent wishes to do, get their act into a performing arts center. In this case, it was a group of tenors singing Irish songs. The agent stressed that the act was “authentically Irish” with “birth certificates and Google maps coordinates available upon request.”
It made me think of John Hevlin, a 94 year-old African-American gentleman I met when playing a concert last year. I had just sung “Danny Boy,” a song that is at the very least considered Irish by a lot of people, and hands down one that the group of tenors would sing.
Mr. Hevlin took my hand and said, “That was almost the best version of 'Danny Boy.'” Meaning, of course, that I had just sung the second best version of "Danny Boy" he had ever heard. I was curious to find out whose was the best.
“Almost the best version?” I laughed.
“Yes," he said kindly. “The best version I ever heard was during World War Two.”
Then Mr. Hevlin told me his story.
When I mentioned that it must have been tough to know this truth and that it must have been hard to return home to prejudice, Mr. Hevlin smiled and looked at me. “The fighting wasn’t over yet,” he said.
In spite of the challenge of being in a segregated army, the journey to Europe was something that enthralled a young Mr. Hevlin. Being part of the Third Army was at times more like a whirlwind tour than an invasion. Patton’s army did push hard and Mr. Hevlin was able to see a bit of Europe.
“I went through England and then to France, Belgium, Luxembourg and into Germany,” he said. That was where he met another African American soldier. This man had a gift: he could sing. But not just for the engineers of Mr. Hevlin’s battalion; this soldier had a voice that transcended race and transcended the very war itself.
“He had a beautiful voice that you wanted to hear. People from all around, they would show up just to hear him sing.”
There was a lull in the great push into Germany, and Mr. Hevlin’s friend was invited to perform. He was backed by a big band and the word got out to the various units in the area. Pretty soon, hundreds of men were waiting to hear this one performer.
“We were up between two mountains,” Mr. Hevlin said. “The men would be all up the sides of those mountains. Listening. Just to hear him sing. The band would be down below and up to us would come the singing of this man.”
And what made those soldiers sit quietly and listen was a beautiful rendition of “Danny Boy” floating up from this African-American soldier. And for a brief while, during that horrible war, that song resonated with every soldier who was there. A song that cut across race and creed. A song about home and whether you would make it back.
And almost 70 years later, a 94 year-old veteran can still feel the impact of that song.
There will be those who argue that Irish music, in order to be authentic, must be performed by those “whose birth certificates and Google maps are available upon request.” But I think they are missing the point about Irish music.
It can be argued that Irish music has transcended being just the music of the Irish, much the same as Bluegrass is not just the music of the people of Appalachia or Blues the music of the Deep South. The diaspora alone can lay claim to it, and many great bands around the world testify to Irish music truly coming into its own. The traditions need to be respected and protected.
I think Mr. Hevlin’s friend tapped into to the true power of Irish music that night in Germany so many years ago. And I have no problem with singing “almost” the best version of Danny Boy that Mr. Hevlin had ever heard.
Marty sings Danny Boy...