Jeanette MacDonald: 1903-1965… a tribute by Nelson Eddy

Today we remember Jeanette MacDonald…but instead of the normal tribute to her life and career, I’d like to quote from a Nelson Eddy fan report of a concert given by Nelson on April 22, 1942. This was during World War II and on this Wednesday evening, Nelson was singing in El Paso, Texas to a crowd sitting on folding chairs. The female fan wrote:

When Nelson Eddy strides out I am almost electrocuted. He is a very different Eddy in concert than the one I had been seeing…. “Star Spangled Banner” – his voice ringing out deep and clear above everybody’s…. He is not merry tonight; in fact, rather sad. sad, quiet, poised…

Mr. Eddy had as his guests 100 soldiers from the hospital. They requested him to sing “Danny Boy” and he said that as he didn’t know the words very well he would sing it with different words, “My Love of Londonderry” and we could just imagine he was singing the other ones.

At this point Nelson proceeded to sing the “Danny Boy” melody but with different lyrics. It should be noted that Nelson had, in fact, sung this song several previous times on the radio, in 1936, 1937, 1939 and 1940. He would sing it at least six more times on radio and record it twice on record. On his 1936 tour, it was one of his standard encores after every performance. Here are the original lyrics:

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

It’s highly unlikely that Nelson Eddy “didn’t know the words very well.” Granted, this song has been sung with different lyrics over the decades but certainly Nelson was quite familiar with it. What stands out is that after singing “Danny Boy” in September 1936 and September 1937, Nelson did not sing the sing the song the following autumn – of 1938.

So what happened in 1938? Why did the song drop out of his repertoire altogether in the fall of that year with a future lame excuse that he “didn’t know the words very well?”

I’m sure some of you are a few steps ahead of me here… aware that in 1938 Jeanette MacDonald came the closest she would ever come to having a baby with Nelson Eddy…a too-premature boy that did not live but that they named Daniel, in honor of her deceased father.

In 1937 and 1939, Nelson sang on his radio show the different lyrics found below. The alternate version that Nelson sang was called “My Love of Londonderry.” In his intro to singing it (in 1937), Nelson says: “Inspired by the old and familiar ‘Londonderry Air’, Helen Vordemann Knox made it into a romantic love song. Through her re-setting of the music, she added a beautiful and poetic lyric. Then very appropriately she called it, ‘My Love of Londonderry’. ”

This is the version that Nelson chose to sing when not wanting to do the standard “Danny Boy” lyrics. He’s referring to the blue-eyed girl that he loves. This cannot be coincidental because in 1937 he was facing making a new film with Jeanette after her marriage to Gene Raymond…and he wasn’t doing a very good job of pretending he was over her. And as for October 22, 1939, Nelson was again trying desperately to make peace with Jeanette so they could work together in New Moon. These were highly personal lyrics, proclaiming his love for her. Did it soften her up? Remember also that Nelson told Jeanette to sing “One Kiss” just for him, writing her that “my love for you is indestructible.” So what did Jeanette do? She sang “One Kiss” on a radio show exactly one week later, October 29, 1939.

In September of 1940 Nelson sang it again – on a show called “We Think of England.” Not his normal radio show. And then he skipped 1941. Then sang “My Love of Londonderry” at this April 1942 concert and and less than a month later the same melody on the radio again – but instead with the original “Danny Boy” lyrics (we have the show here to verify).

Truly this was a sad song for Nelson after 1938 with the “Danny Boy” lyrics…but when requested to sing it by an audience of WWII servicemen, he sang the more personal lyrics instead about a beautiful girl with sweet blue eyes…and “the love that never dies.” Though even with that version, the fan writing about Nelson’s concert in April 1942 noted how subdued he was.

Actually, folks, there WAS a reason that Nelson chose not to sing “Danny Boy” that evening and it had everything to do with what was happening in his life and in Jeanette’s at that time. But that is another story. The audience accepted the excuse he gave.

So on this 2016 anniversary of Jeanette MacDonald’s death, here is an obvious tribute to her life, beauty and love sung by a man who knew her better than any of us ever could. Here are the lyrics for “My Love of Londonderry”, a song that at times had a private, special meaning when Nelson sang them:

‘Twas in the dear old town of Londonderry
‘Twas in the merry, merry month of May.
‘Twas there I found my own, my blue-eyed darling.
In one short hour she stole my heart away.
“Will you be mine?”, I asked her, gently pleading.
“Sure it was heaven that made you just for me.”
Only one look she gave me from her sweet blue eyes
But in that glance, I saw the love that never dies.

‘Twas in the dear old town of Londonderry
‘Twas in the merry, merry month of May
The blackthorn buds were bursting into flower
The birds were singing blithe and gay.
Sure my own heart itself with joy was bursting
God ever bless the merry month of May
For it was then I found my blue-eyed darling
And wooed and won her heart to be my own always.

As a postscript, the fan wrapped up her narrative:

The Liberty Hall – where the concert was held – was 7 blocks from “our” hotel…. I rushed [to get back to the hotel] for it was blowing and raining…. When I got there I sat on the big majestic chair which was near the elevators – a tall, straight backed carved Spanish affair. In about two minutes a party came marching in the front doors, a pair of broad shoulders being the most dominant element…How different he looked from that concert apparition! Maybe it was that big grey overcoat, but he looked rather huge, very tired and quiet.

Note: Nelson did write the lyrics to a new song about Jeanette; the 70th anniversary of his singing “My Wonder One” on the radio is explored here.

Today we celebrate Jeanette’s life…and also remember and honor her older sister Blossom Rock (aka Marie Blake, pictured below) who, ironically enough, also died on this day exactly thirteen years after Jeanette on January 14, 1978.

By the way, you can listen to Nelson’s radio rendition of this song at this link: Note that the video says 1938 but once it starts playing the correct date is flashed on the screen, it’s the 1937 version that Nelson sang on September 19, 1937. Thanks to Kitty Job for spotting this and providing the correct link.