For a tune as iconic to a drum corps as “Danny Boy” was to the 27th Lancers during Drum Corps International’s early years, it’s a wonder it stuck with the corps for more than a decade considering founder George Bonfiglio’s wife wasn’t particularly enamored by it.
Set to the Irish folk melody “Londonderry Air,” “Danny Boy” is a classic known around the world thanks to performances by a wide range of artists the likes of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Cher, and even the Muppets.
Famed Australian-born composer Percy Grainger created his own version of the tune in 1916, naming it “Irish Tune from County Derry.” This setting, one of the most-played works in the world of concert band music, inspired the version created by 27th Lancers brass arranger Jim Wedge in 1971.
According to Wedge, the idea of the Revere, Massachusetts-based 27th Lancers using the tune came from a suggestion by longtime DCI Judge Administrator Donald Angelica, a charter member of the DCI Hall of Fame, Class of 1985. Denise Bonfiglio, daughter of corps founder George Bonfiglio and his wife, Patsy, learned from Wedge that her mom was not a fan of the tune.
“He said my mom hated it,” Bonfiglio said. “She found it too depressing.”
Which is easy to understand when considering that the tune is one frequently performed at funerals. “Londonderry Air,” for example, was heard as part of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, while more recently opera singer Renée Fleming sang “Danny Boy” as part of Senator John McCain’s memorial service in the fall of 2018. Moreover, most drum corps of the era were bringing some of the latest up-beat jazz and disco tunes from the Billboard Top 100 charts to the football field.
However, the piece must have quickly grown on Wedge and the rest of the 27th Lancers staff, as the corps not only brought the tune back in 1972 for the inaugural DCI World Championship in Whitewater, Wisconsin, but again for the corps’ productions from 1975 to 1977, 1979 to 1983 and 1985.
Every year the corps reprised “Danny Boy,” its popularity grew exponentially among audiences.
“When 27th Lancers brought ‘Danny Boy’ into its repertoire, it became one of those tunes that transcended generations,” DCI Hall of Fame member Jim Elvord said. “When 27th played the tune, everyone forgot about anyone else who had played it previously. They made it their own.
“It became a standard of the first generation of DCI fans, an iconic tune. Like having a great meal that you can't finish off all at once, you got so much from 27th in the first serving, they would send you home with it in a brown bag so you could enjoy it later after the show."
Much of the popularity of the 27th Lancers renditions of “Danny Boy” came from the visual package the corps put behind the tune. Perhaps more than any other musical selection could have possibly accomplished, the soaring grandeur of the piece allowed the corps to present a wide, sweeping visual statement.
Frequently a massive rotating circle of flags surrounding a long pivoting echelon of brass went hand-in-hand with the music. This maneuver appeared in numerous variations, with the drum line and brass players sometimes finishing in a diagonal line and sometimes ending parallel to the front sideline.
The color guard section also took full advantage of the possibilities offered by the tune, delivering a continual menu of drum corps firsts; such as double flags made possible by a second silk hidden inside the poles. The instant doubling of the number of flags on the field was a remarkable sight, and soon, other corps found uses for their own sets of double flags.
“The Lancers taught the activity how to use a color guard to be entertaining, exciting, and do it with a high degree of excellence,” Denise Bonfiglio says.
Another drum corps first came when color guard members spun rifles while lying on the ground, a move visually anticipated when the rifle line burst through the opening created by horns and drums splitting apart once the large circular rotation concluded. In some years, the flag line also spun their poles while lying on the ground. The maneuver became an instant crowd pleaser as the powerful sounds of “Danny Boy” soared through the stadiums.
Though the 27th Lancers ceased operations after the 1986 DCI World Championships, “Danny Boy” would once again be heard and seen as it was once performed during the corps’ heyday. At the 1994 DCI Finals in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the gigantic 27th Lancers Alumni Corps performed the tune accompanied by the famous corps rotation, but this time with a massive roster of members, far more than were ever allowed by rules in DCI competition.
The magnificence of “Danny Boy” brought back to life more than a decade later reminded all that while 27th Lancers is no longer with us, the corps will never be forgotten.