Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Music of Healing: Arising from the Troubles from Tommy Sands

Musician Tommy Sands is a gentle man with a powerful message, a songwriter who talks of hurt and healing, division and reconnection in his songs. He has taken his songs of peace and justice from prisons in Nevada to community groups in the Middle East. The heart of his music, though, comes from his home country County Down in Northern Ireland

Down lies right along the border with the Republic, a borderland that has seen more than its share of bloodshed and division among folk who would otherwise be a community of neighbors. It is a beautiful place, a land of mountain and water, legend and story. From these wellsprings, Tommy Sands draws his music.

In Irish history and legend, there comes a time when leader Fionn MacCumhaill is talking with his people of music. “What is the most beautiful music in the world,?” he asks them, and they speak up for the songs of birds, the laughter of a girl, the baying of hounds. Fionn agrees that they are all good, but he says. “The most beautiful music of all is the music of what happens.”

tomy sands arising from the troubles“Growing up, I heard songs all around me, songs of emigration and things that were very meaningful to those who wrote them, traditional songs. Then there were things happening around me, and I felt, as a songwriter, that I wanted to write about what was going on around me. I don’t know how historical Fionn MacCumhaill was exactly, “ says Tommy Sands, “but sometimes mythology is truer than factual stuff.”

For his album Arising from the Troubles, Sands has gathered together eighteen songs, some of which he’s been singing live for years but has not before put on record. They come from and speak of the political and personal aspects of the troubled times of Northern Ireland, the history and the present day. As well as the hard times, anger, and pain, they speak too of the possibilities of hope and peace,

Sands is joined on the album by his son Fionan and his daughter Moya. Moya takes the lead in singing on A Stone’s Throw. In four verses, Sands and his daughter illuminate the idea of communities of people who grow up separately together, and the changes that have taken place from the time Sands went to school with that situation to the time his daughter did. If you are familiar with American songwriter Kate Campbell’s work, you may see parallels with her song about growing up separately together black and white in the American south, a song called A Cotton Field Away.

We’ll Sing It All Over and You Sold Us Down the River are both anthems of a sort, from differing perspectives. Sing It All Over is a forceful statement of principles of the civil right movement in Northern Ireland (part of the words you hear in the background are ‘one man one vote one one vote’), while Sold Us Down the River is a song Sands wrote after speaking with a Protestant neighbor and thinking about the man’s feelings of being expected to be loyal to the crown and then let down by the actions of the British government.tommy sands fionan sands moya sands

Sailing Through the Sky explores a poetic, thoughtful, and bittersweet idea about being in prison. Troubles recalls the uncertainty of years when a strange car coming down the road or a word spoken at the wrong time might lead to fear and even death.

The sadness, pain, anger, and fear is context, though, for hope and even humor. The Mixed Marriage, a duet with Dolores Keane, finds the two singers poking fun at differences. Pete Seeger joins in for The Music of Healing, a song which became the genesis of an annual event exploring and celebrating ways music can reach across troubled times. In the opening verse, Sands writes

Don’t beat the drum, that frightens the children
Don’t sing songs about winning and losing
Sit down beside me, the green fields are bleeding
Sing me the music of healing.

and in the chorus repeats

Ah, the heart’s a wonder
Stronger than the guns of thunder
Even when we’re torn asunder
Love will come again.

It is a song Sands has sung across the world, and in his hometown of Rostrevor in County Down. As Sands was growing up there, the violence and division of the Troubles was coming on, but he saw another side, too. “When my parents played music -- my father played the fiddle and my mother played accordion -- people would come into the house, and it didn't matter what religion you were, what politics, soon I’d see their feet tapping in time, all to the same tune,” he says.

With songs that put poetry in politics and politics into poetry, and music into both, Tommy Sands keeps carrying that idea on.

you may also wish to see
Music Road: Tommy Sands: Let the Circle Be Wide
Music Road: now playing: Radio Ballads: Northern Ireland
thoughts about the summer riots in Belfast, at Perceptive Travel,

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posted by Kerry Dexter at

11 Comments:

Anonymous Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart said...

I have a friend whose teenaged daughter is struggling after an international move. I wonder if music like this would help her.

4:54 PM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

Roxanne,
It might.
I think I'd suggest another of Tommy's albums, Let the Circle Be Wide, for a first choice in that situation. There's a link to what I had to say about it and where you can hear a bit of it at the end of the post above. Carrie Newcomer's album Before & After might help in such a situation too.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous NoPotCooking said...

You always write so beautifully about music and this is an excellent example. You always interest me in music I never would have found on my own.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Kris @ Attainable Sustainable said...

“The most beautiful music of all is the music of what happens.” This is so true. Thanks for this beautiful post.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous ruthpennebaker said...

The lyrics you quote are lovely. Thanks so much for recommending this music.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Sheryl said...

Music that stems out of pain and hardship has to be very moving and powerful. Thanks for this lovely post.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous wandering educators said...

i love this - too often, i love the music more than the lyrics and so they come second. but what i love about your site is that you love and share BOTH. thank you!

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Alexandra said...

Sounds like an amazing album. How nice that his son and daughter collaborated. I was listening to Bruce Springsteen in a shop the other day, playing in the background, and realized that much of what you said about Tommy could apply to him, too.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Living Large said...

I've heard some of Tommy Sands music and love it. Thanks for this piece.

5:58 PM  
Blogger MyKidsEatSquid said...

I love that music is a shared experience for his family. I'm going to go look up the song, Mixed Marriage.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Angela said...

Lovely blog. I sing in a choir and keep a blog myself, where I sometimes write about the healing power of music. I know that our choir, which is a small community choir of about 30, certainly has some wonderful material. Our director finds stuff that I've never heard before but am glad to discover. I will certainly give Tommy Sands a listen. I agree that music and singing can unit communities and people.
Angela

2:17 AM  

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