An internationally celebrated singer, songwriter, storyteller, and social activist, Tommy Sands was raised with traditional music in County Down, Northern Ireland. As a member of the influential Sands Family folk ensemble, he introduced international audiences to Irish music during the 1960s and laid the groundwork for its current worldwide popularity. Author of such classic songs as “There Were Roses,” “Daughters and Sons,” and “Come on Home to the County Down,” he has seen his works translated into many languages and recorded by such artists as Joan Baez, Kathy Mattea, and Dolores Keane. Over the decades, his artistic integrity, engaging style, and commitment to peace and dialogue between peoples of different backgrounds have contributed to his worldwide renown.
As one of contemporary Ireland’s most important songwriters, Sands 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. “That’s the reason why a painter dips his brush into paint, or a songwriter dips his pen into ink.” In his recent autobiography The Songman: A Journey in Irish Music, Sands writes eloquently about growing up on a small farm in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains with his parents and six siblings, “a Fenian fiddle in one ear and an Orange drum in the other.” His family was immersed in folk music - his father played fiddle, his mother, accordion. Catholics and Protestants from the neighboring farms gathered in the family’s kitchen for music, dancing, and craic. As a young child, he would hear the music of the session through his bedroom door. After taking up the fiddle for a while, he became more interested in singing, and eventually in songwriting. “At the sessions at home, we’d sing the traditional songs,” he explained, “but it was good to have a new song, too. So I found myself writing 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. I wanted to write about real things that had happened to me.” For Sands, songwriting was a direct outgrowth of traditional music, a continuation of traditional creativity.
The Sands Family, composed of Tommy, Eugene, Ben, Colum, and Ann Sands, was one of the great groups of the 1960s and 1970s Irish folk revival. Influenced by the Clancy Brothers, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, they arranged the old unaccompanied songs and made them accessible to a broader audience. “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 Irish civil rights movement was beginning, and The Sands Family played a lot of rallies and political events.
In the late 1970s, Sands turned to solo touring and became more involved as a peace activist. He also started an influential weekly radio show. On a legendary 1986 Christmas broadcast, he invited leaders of political and religious factions to appear together, and when they refused, he recorded them individually and then mixed the tapes so they seemed to be in one room together. In December 2002, he persuaded Members of the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly to return for a seminal and successful cross-community Christmas musical party, during which Loyalist leader David Ervine famously remarked, “Tommy Sands is the only man, without a private army, who can intimidate me.”
Today, Sands continues to tour extensively as a soloist and with his son and daughter, Fionán and Moya - both fine musicians in their own rights. He remains involved in numerous socially progressive causes and is increasingly involved with educational programs. His latest recording, Let the Circle Be Wide, is inspired by his work with children.
Rediscover Northern Ireland Events 2008: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is the lead development agency for the arts in Northern Ireland. It is the main support for artists and arts organizations, offering a broad range of funding opportunities through our Exchequer and National Lottery funds.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and trai ning.The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was establishedin 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site at http://www.loc.gov/folklife/.
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