Songs That Bind Us: The Music of Tommy Sands

by Stephen D. Winick

This Article First Appeared in Sing Out! Magazine, vol 36 #3, Nov/Dec 1991. It was updated in January 1996 to include a discussion of his album The Heart's A Wonder

"There was joy, there was sorrow, there were rocky roads to follow...."

So begins "Shadow of O'Casey," one of the songs on Northern Irish singer, songwriter and storyteller Tommy Sands' 1990 record, Beyond the Shadows. And while the song is referring to playwright Sean O'Casey's life, it could just as well be referring to Sands' own. He has seen the rare joy of celebrity status in his homeland and elsewhere wedded to artistic integrity, and the sorrow of personal tragedy and a war-torn homeland. He walks the rocky road between Protestant and Catholic, Republican and Loyalist, trying to bring together the far-flung factions within his political reality. And, like O'Casey, he is a man who lives by dreaming of improving that reality. As a part of the Sands Family, one of the most important traditional groups in the Irish folk revival's early years, and since then as one of Ireland's truly great songwriters, he has attempted both to add beauty to the world and to point out where it still needs improvement. "I think the dream of making the world better is very important," he says, "I think that that's the reason why maybe a painter dips his brush into paint, or a songwriter dips his pen into ink." His songs, including "There Were Roses," "Daughters and Sons," and "All the Little Children," are widely hailed as some of the best songs in Ireland and the world. They have been in the charts in Europe, and have been performed and recorded by top names in Celtic music, among them Tommy Makem, Dick Gaughan and Robbie O'Connell. Sands himself is one of the most popular and beloved figures on the music scene in Ireland and much of Europe. Despite all of this, he remains less well known to American audiences. With his albums and concert performances in the U.S. and Canada, he hopes to rectify that situation. And, of course, to change the world.

One of the principal areas where change is needed is in the political arena. The main thrust of Tommy's philosophy concerning the politics of Ireland (and of the world) is that change must come from the ordinary people. And he, as an artist, can be significant to that change. "I can't move mountains with songs," he says, "but I can try to help Protestants and Catholics to understand each other better. Politicians, by their very nature, can't change very much...they can only come along afterwards." If the ordinary Catholic and the ordinary Protestant in Northern Ireland could be reconciled, though, he believes that the politicians would be forced to reconcile themselves as well.

Tommy's desire to unite the people, and his belief that music and song can be the catalyst to this unification, is rooted in his early life. The small farm where he grew up with his parents and six siblings was often the locus where Catholics and Protestants got together in friendly, intimate circumstances for music, dancing and fun. His father played the fiddle, as did his six uncles, his mother played the accordion, and his six aunts lilted for dances, so there was never an absence of music. His first recollections of tunes and songs are from a time when he was too young to participate; he would hear the music of the session coming in under the bedroom door. Catholics and Protestants making music together demonstrated to the young Sands children that the lines drawn between us by political allegiance are artificial, and that they can be transcended by ordinary people.

The sessions also gave Tommy his start as a musician and songwriter. After taking up the fiddle for a while, he became more interested in singing, and eventually in songwriting. He explains, "at the parties at home, at the sessions, you'd sing the traditional songs, but it used to be good to have a new song for the session next week. So I found myself writing something, maybe about some event that had happened during the week on the farm. The songs that the older people were singing were songs of events maybe a hundred years ago, but they were real events, they were real things. I wanted to write about real things as well, that had happened to me." Songwriting, for Sands, was initially seen as a direct outgrowth of traditional music, a continuation of traditional creativity.

While singing and writing songs were still hobbies, Tommy's interests turned during his student years to Theology and Philosophy, and he studied these avidly. Finally, though, he left college, and decided to walk the hundred and twenty miles back home. He was nearing home, unsure of his future, wondering if he'd end up working in the ditches like the men he passed along the way, when a black taxi filled with his siblings passed him going the other way. It stopped, and his brother Colum rolled the window down. "We're going to play a concert," he said. "We've got your guitar in the back of the car." So Tommy joined them, and he's never looked back.

The Sands Family, composed of Tommy, Eugene, Ben, Colum, and Ann Sands, all siblings, was one of the great groups of the 1960s and 1970s Irish folk revival. Tommy remembers feeling the influence of the Clancy Brothers, another famous family act: "they were very influential on everybody, I think, in Ireland. The way they took the old unaccompanied songs and put a guitar behind them made them more accessible to a wider audience. That was the first indication we had that this music was for a much bigger stage than our front room." Other musicians were influences, too. "In around that time, we also heard American folk music, people like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez."

The biggest influence on Tommy's songwriting, however, was always what he saw around him. "We started out as a traditional group, singing songs about pretty young girls in the month of May. But when it got to be June, or even July, and people were being killed, there were more important things to write about." The civil rights movement was beginning, and the Sands Family used to play a lot of rallies and political events. Tommy describes Northern Ireland in the sixties: "In every pub, there was a session, and then the philosophy and the politics would start. All the mental muscles were being flexed in those days...I found myself writing songs about justice, and trying to create peace and equality in the framework of Northern Ireland, or the framework of all Ireland."

But the small framework of Ireland was one they were destined to leave, if only for a while. In 1970, placing first in a national ballad-group contest won them a concert trip to New York City, and eventually they were playing Carnegie Hall. Tommy remembers with a gleam in his eye trying to find the place: "We had to get a taxi to bring us to Carnegie Hall, but no taxi would take the five of us...we wouldn't split up, because we were too nervous. So we decided to walk. We weren't too sure how to get there, so I remember asking someone. We said, 'We want to get to Carnegie Hall.' He said, 'Practice. Keep practicing.'"

Old jokes aside, they did make it to Carnegie Hall despite all obstacles, and were approached in their dressing room by a manager working out of Boston. They worked there for six months, but when the troubles started heating up again at home, they felt they should return. When they did tour again, it was in Europe. There, particularly in Germany, they stunned audiences and made many fans. Asked why he feels the Sands family were so popular in a place where their language wasn't always understood, Tommy gives a few answers. First of all, he thinks Irish folk song appeals to German youth because their own folk music was perverted by Hitler's machine into Nazi propaganda, and holds no pleasure for those trying to forget the Nazi era. Also, he feels that there were similarities between Northern Ireland and East Germany in the 1960s and the 1970s. People didn't trust the government, there was a lot of fear, and political messages had to be somewhat subtle or hidden altogether. So the East Germans could appreciate better than anyone the humor in Tommy and Colum's lyrics:

Whatever you say, say nothing when you talk about you-know-what
For if you-know-who should hear you, you know what you'll get.
They'll lock you up in you-know-where for you wouldn't know how long,
So for you-know-who's sake don't let anyone hear you singin' this song.

During the next few years, at home and away, everything was to change for the Sands family. Tommy recalls one incident from 1974 in his classic song "There Were Roses." A Protestant friend of his was killed in an act of senseless violence. When the local Protestants looked for a Catholic to kill in retaliation, they ironically chose a man who had been good friends with the original victim--and with Tommy Sands. "It took me almost ten years to write the song, because I saw more than just the events. It summed up war, how people can be put into little boxes and told they're different. It still happens. You know, George Bush says, 'We have nothing against the Iraqi people, it's Saddam.' Some weeks later, a hundred thousand Iraqi people are dead, and Saddam's still there. I wonder what the victory is."

At around the same time as the events in "There were Roses" were occurring, the Protestant-backed Ulster Defense Association invited Tommy to tour an installation, and he was surprised by what he found. "I saw a book on Gandhi, and I saw Celtic pictures on the wall...I felt part of them," he says. Later the same week, he found himself at the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, and the similarities were plain to him. "Going through the door, the locks were the same. The chains were the same. Looking through the windows and seeing the same pictures was the thing that really impressed me. Same houses, same unemployment, the same people wearing the same clothes, the same sense of depression. At that moment, I knew the the people are together. It's a matter of recognizing it. And the question I ask is when we will recognize it."

As usual, Tommy asks his questions in song. In "1999," a chilling song that he wrote a few years back and that appears on Beyond the Shadows, he writes:

Oh IRA and UVF, this song is just for you
As you sit down at the table now to see what you can do
At last you come together after all the tears and time
Sad you didn't do it back in 1999.

A short while after visiting these installations, in 1975, Tommy and his siblings were back in Germany doing a tour, when a tragedy struck the family. Their youngest brother, Eugene (or Dino, as he was known) was killed in an auto accident going from gig to gig. After that, the family's professional life underwent some major changes. Ann didn't have the heart to tour Germany anymore, so any family tours there were restricted to the three brothers, Ben, Colum and Tommy. Tommy started his weekly radio program, now in its eighteenth year. The Sands family, after fourteen albums and numerous tours, was reunited as a professional group only once a year for the summer music festivals in Ireland. And Tommy started to tour the world on his own.

This situation prevails to this day. Once a year, Ben, Colum, and Tommy tour Germany, where they still enjoy big-name popularity. Once a year, the family tours Ireland. The rest of the time, Tommy devotes to solo work, to his radio program, and to special projects, such as the show he helped put together recently about Sean O'Casey's life. In the U.S., he has been seen touring on his own, occasionally with the Green Fields of America, with Mick Moloney and Jimmy Keane (when their usual mate, Robbie O'Connell, is off touring with his uncles, the Clancy Brothers), and with accordion player Máirtín O'Connor.

These days, it is easy to see Tommy as a political songwriter, but that isn't his main goal in writing. "I didn't set out to be a political songwriter," he says, "I wanted to write songs about people." It is only because of the openly political nature of many people's problems that politics become central to his writing. In general, his songs attempt to speak for the common folk, to give voice to the people's concerns. This is reflected in his songwriting process; he finds the music in common speech. First comes a line of the lyrics. Then, he says, "I take that line, and I find that the inflection in the line, the way that you say it, is itself music. I find that I just exaggerate that inflection."

His desire to speak for the people was as apparent on Beyond the Shadows as it was on previous releases. Besides "1999," the album has other challenging songs on it. One of them in particular, called "Dresden," explores the feelings of people who have suffered under oppression their whole lives. From the Nazis to the allied bombardement to occupation to the iron curtain, and finally to the toppling of the Berlin wall, the song follows the story of one small family. Tommy says "I was in East Germany shortly after the wall came down...there was a revolution going on, but it was a revolution without songs." Tommy sees the end of the wall as the end of a dream, rather than the attainment of one. Life in the West may not be all it's cracked up to be for East Germans who face unemployment, low wages and racial hatred. "Dresden, " like "There Were Roses," is a quiet and sad song that doesn't preach but that speaks for those whose voices often go unheard.

Tommy's latest album is The Heart's a Wonder, and it, too, explores these themes. Like everyone in Northern Ireland, he views the recent cease fires as a reason to hope for the future. He knows, however, that a solution will only be reached by hard work. "No matter what the eventual solution is to be," he says, "ordinary people have to learn to live together." To that end, he has written "The Music of Healing," his most celebrated song since "There Were Roses." It is a plea for understanding, for love, and for peace. In its refrain, "sing me the music of healing," it crystallizes the prayers of many Irish people. Another of his songs from the album, "The Age of Uncertainty," makes it clear how far we still have to go to get back to simpler days of peace, like the peace, however fleeting, that the Sands family enjoyed as children:

And someone, surely somewhere, somehow can recall the time
When People didn't lock their doors to strangers in the night time
And we were neighbor's children then and dancers danced in time
And we couldn't wait for twelve o'clock till our parents said goodnight

Not surprisingly, Tommy sees his role as a media personality, like his role as a songwriter, as that of a spokesman for unity and for the common person; for his legendary 1986 Christmas broadcast, he invited the leaders of several of Northern Ireland's political and religious factions to "sing a song or tell a yarn." The leaders refused to be present at the studio all at once, so Tommy recorded them individually and then mixed the tapes so that it appeared that they were all in one room together. Hearing their leaders apparently engaged in friendly social relations with one another "did people good," Tommy believes. When the politicians and the people can live up to the example that Tommy Sands is setting, Northern Ireland will finally have its chance for a lasting peace.




Discography

Solo:
The Heart's a Wonder, Green Linnet 1158, 1995
Beyond the Shadows, Spring 1021, 1990
Hedges of County Down & Other Traditional Songs, Spring 1015, 1989
Down By Bendy's Lane: Irish Songs and Stories for Children, Green Linnet 1085, 1988
Singing of the Times, Green Linnet 3004, 1985

With the Sands Family:
Sands Family at Home: Two Generations, Autogram 294, Germany, 1988
Now and Then, Spring 108, 1985
Tell Me What You See, Plane 88303, Germany, 1982
Sands in Berlin, Amiga, Germany 1980
High Hills and Valleys, Plane 88206, Germany, 1979
Real Irish Folk, Decca 1201, Ireland, 1978
Sands Family Live, Plane S16F601, Germany, 1977
After The Morning, E.M.I., Ireland, 1977
As I Roved Out, Arfolk SB 343, France, 1975
Winds of Freeedom, Plane S16F600, Germany, 1975
You'll Be Well Looked After, E.M.I. 7005, Ireland, 1975
The First Day and the Second Day, Autogram 501, Germany, 1974
Folk from the Mournes, Outlet OAS 3004, Ireland, 1968
The Third Day, Autogram 233, Germany
All writing on stevewinick.com © Stephen D. Winick. The copyright on all images remains with the artist or photographer.