Friday, 26 March 2010

Tommy Sands’ Irish music holds heartfelt message

music in the square 13Image by arndt_hoppe via Flickr

Irish folk singer Tommy Sands has been complimented by Pete Seeger, honored as an International Peace Award nominee, and asked to bring his message of humanity to Israel and Palestine.

His status as a spokesman for human rights is as much a part of his artistic identity as his emphasis on music with a strong Irish influence, but once he’s on the stage he never drifts far from his roots. When the lights go down and Sands and his two musician children, Moya and Fionan, are on stage he’s back home somewhere in rural Ireland singing for fun and spiritual fulfillment.

In a phone interview from a Wyoming stop on a tour that brings him to southeast Michigan Saturday, Sands reflected on how his music connects him to his heritage.

“It’s the idea of sitting around the fire and sharing songs and stories,” he said. “Even last night we were a long way from home [physically] but on the stage it was much like home.”

His newest release is “Let The Circle Be Wide” and it is filled with songs that draw from Irish folk tradition, including “The Young Man’s Dream,” which is a version of the classic “Danny Boy.”

“The Young Man’s Dream” was written in the mid-1600s and, Sands said, it contains elements that one day would become part of “Danny Boy,” which was written in 1910. He noted that in the 17th century singers would write songs about Ireland, but substitute women’s names in place of that of the country to avoid censorship from the Church of England.

“The song is kind of a dream song — kind of a waking dream — and in these type of songs ... usually the young man has a dream of a woman, a young woman, and he falls in love with her, but it’s not really a woman, it’s Ireland,” Sands said.

He grew up in rural Ireland in a large family that constantly played music. Music was something that Catholics and Protestants could agree on and put aside their differences to play, he said.

“When I was growing up and learning songs my parents sang, I think my very first memory was waking up when I should’ve been asleep and hearing music, and the light coming through the door,” he said.

“As a child the first thing I noticed was all these toes tapping rather than their religious affiliation.”

He went on to form the Sands Family with four of his brothers and his sister, and they became well-known members of the Irish folk revival, achieving fame in the United States in the early ’60s. Tommy Sands went on to a solo career that continues now with his adult children serving as his backup musicians.

He recently played at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden, sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and, of course Seeger, who has praised his music.

Sands said his commitment to issues of social justice was forged early when he grew up during the “troubles” in Ireland.

“I never set out to write political songs or peace songs. I was happy singing about pretty fair maids in May, but when it became July and August and the pretty fair maids were killed, I felt like I had a right to write about that.”

Tommy Sands will perform at the Tecumseh Center for the Arts Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $24 for adults and $21 for children and senior citizens. Call 517-423-6617 or go to for tickets and information.

Contact Rod Lockwood at or 419-724-6159.
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