Tommy Sands:
Peace through music

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

During a recent performance in Cape Breton, Tommy Sands said he learned the lively song "When the Boys Come Rolling Home" from another Irish musician, who in turn learned it from another, and another, on and on back a chain of music to its original composer -- Tommy Sands.

It's flattering, he says, that so many of his songs are now considered traditional by the people who sing them. The renowned singer-songwriter from County Down, Northern Ireland, has been practicing his craft for more than 30 years -- beginning in the 1960s and '70s as part of the influential Sands Family, with siblings Colum, Ben, Eugene and Ann -- and in that time he's produced numerous musical gems. Influenced by the likes of the Clancy Brothers, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, the Sands Family was an integral part of the Irish folk revival with its blend of traditional and original songs.

But Sands says he's not trying to create classics when he sits down to write a song. "To be honest, I'm not writing with any intention of it being considered 'traditional,'" he says. "I'm usually expressing something that's close to me."

His songs "have to be in the idiom of the Irish people," he concedes, but the neo-traditional style of his music just comes naturally to him. "I'm not a commercial writer in any way," Sands says. "I couldn't write it unless I felt it."

Sands feels very deeply, especially where issues of peace in Northern Ireland are concerned. While Irish bands (particularly in the U.S.) thrive on performing rebel songs -- often humorously promoting violence, sometimes quite seriously promoting it -- Sands has written beloved songs that stir the spirit by focusing on peace.

"Peace is like a little baby that slips and stumbles before it learns to walk. But with enough helping hands," he says, "it'll learn to dance." His song "Daughters and Sons," for instance, has an optimistic outlook for the next generation.

He credits his outlook on his childhood. Growing up with his parents and six siblings on a small farm, he was accustomed to music as a part of daily life -- and Catholics and Protestants often gathered together at the Sands home to share music and dance. It's ordinary folk like that, he says, who will make peace work.

One of his best-known songs, "There Were Roses," tells a true story from his younger days when two good friends, one on each side of the Catholic-vs.-Protestant struggle in Northern Ireland, were killed in separate incidents of senseless violence and retaliation. But, while the chilling song is heart-wrenchingly tragic, Sands says the point of it isn't the tears it evokes. "The music was never meant to make you sad," he told an audience at the 2003 Celtic Colours music festival. "It was meant to take the sadness out of you and leave space for you to get on with the dance of life."

When Sands sang the hopeful "Down By the Lagan Side" -- "And when we dance, we'll dance together / When we cry, we'll hold each other / And when we love, we'll love forever / Down by the Lagan side" -- during the Good Friday Agreement Talks in 1998, politicians from both sides halted discussions long enough to come out and sing along. Similarly, he persuaded several reserved politicians from both ends of the political spectrum to sing with him during a special Christmas celebration in 2002.

"There were tears in people's eyes," he recalls. "These people had been shooting at each other not too long ago."

Music, Sands believes, has the power to change attitudes. "Everything changes things. One word in the right place can change things," he says. "Then you also have the element of music, which appeals to the emotions and the heart. ... So many senses are touched by a song."

He's not afraid to approach serious topics with a sense of wit. ""I think humor's a very serious thing," he says. "It's also a sacred thing." At the same time, Sands is well aware of the importance of a sound bite.

"It sounds like manipulation, but I thought it was very important that the news media got that," he says. Show people a placid scene and they'll look elsewhere for a more exciting view. "You have to create a storm," he explains. "You get more attention that way."

Music not only can affect people's opinions, he adds. "Music can help to introduce politicians to different ideas as well."

It's part of a national legacy, he says.

"In the Irish tradition, songs have always been very important," he explains. The ancient bards of Ireland wore coats of many colors, he notes, signifying their ties to all clans but their allegiance to none.

"I am happy to have an opportunity to do this in the Northern Ireland context," he says. But he disagrees with the notion that ending violence in Northern Ireland is in any way a placid effort.

"I don't think peace is passive at all," he says. "There's nothing passive about creating peace."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 22 November 2003

[ visit Tommy Sands' website ]