Colum Sands, from County Down, is well known to most lovers of folk music. A musician, songwriter, radio broadcaster, album producer as well as a collaborative artist and member of the celebrated Sands Family, Colum has many years in the folk music business under his belt.
In 2012 he took a year out of his busy touring and broadcasting schedule to relax, think and then get down to the serious business of songwriting. The results of this break can be seen on his latest album, Turn The Corner, an album that shows, yet again, why Colum is renowned the world over for his storytelling through song.
Colum’s family background plays a big part in his story and he tells us a bit about how the Sands Family came to be known for their music making.
“We started playing music when we were very young, at home, in neighbours’ houses and in local concerts. There were no wires connected to our house until the early 1970s, so people were used to shortening the winter nights with music, songs and stories. The wireless was rationed because the wet, rechargeable batteries ran down very fast so it was just the news and a programme called Ceili House on RTE or Radio Eireann as it was then. All the rest of the entertainment was homemade and that was the case in many houses in our part of County Down. Our parents both played music (fiddle and accordion) and they had some great old songs as well - as a family band we are still recording some of them to this day. The local concerts we started off playing in progressed into excursions further afield until we won an All Ireland Competition in Dublin for folk bands, or maybe they were called Ballad Groups at the time. Anyway, we won and the prize was to play in New York for three weeks - a culture shock to say the least - but there we met Mike Broadbine who was managing Tommy Makem at the time. He invited us back for more concerts including an appearance in Carnegie Hall and then a stint of six months in clubs and concerts followed. This led us all into seeing music as a full time occupation and we’ve all been going solo and as a band ever since.”
“We do what we do without thinking too much about it. I think in those early sessions at home, we all learned from our parents that music is not a luxury, it’s a part of life. I’d say that through our parents we also absorbed the importance of making people feel welcome and to sing for and with them, rather than at them.”
Colum quickly established his reputation as a songwriter and released his first album, Unapproved Road, in 1981, containing some of his best loved songs such as Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, There’ll Have To Be Some Changes and Almost Every Circumstance.
“The song writing started from those early sessions in and around home. As is the case in singing circles to this day, many people will have ‘their own’ songs (even if they are traditional songs) and you’d want to think twice before you would sing someone else’s song! So the earliest songwriting was probably done just to have our own songs. Topical songs about what was going on in the locality broadened out into what was going on in the bigger world at that time. The civil rights movement was happening here and it seemed to be important to sing folk songs not just about the folk of a hundred or so years ago, but also about the folk all around us. I always felt that all the songs were connected though and so, in tandem with recording traditional songs from my parents (an album of theirs was released on vinyl on the German Autogram label), I was writing songs like Whatever You Say, Say Nothing about the suspicions among people here as the Troubles worsened.”
“In keeping with the connection between songs old and new, I had bought some decent recording equipment and set up a small studio in Rostrevor by the early 1980s and had the privilege of recording debut albums for musicians like the great Belfast flute player Dessie Wilkinson, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy of the band Ragairne, later to blossom into Altan, songwriters like Kieran Goss, Rosemary Woods, Mickey MacConnell and Briege Murphy, youthful singers like Cara Dillon and Oige, Cara’s sister Mary with the excellent band Deanta, and many more. The concept of the Spring Records label was, and still is, to provide artistes of all ages with a platform to bring an album into the world and to retain all rights on it for themselves.”
A lot of Colum’s songs are about things and places close to home and yet they resonate through similar places and circumstances elsewhere. The title track of his latest album explores the whole idea of home, in its broadest sense, and home is obviously a place that inspires much of Colum’s writing.
“Home for me is in County Down. I was born in the townland of Ryan, in the parish of Saval, near the village of Mayobridge, and now live just a few miles from there in Rostrevor. It seems that most of my songs have come from the experiences, the people and the places that have influenced and inspired me, whether close to home or on the roads of the world. I’ve found that even the most ‘local’ song will strike a chord with people anywhere and it never ceases to amaze me that if I sing a song about childhood days like Going Down To The Well With Maggie, people from Donegal, Manchester, Glasgow, Sydney, Tel Aviv, San Francisco and Hong Kong come up to me afterwards and tell me that they knew a woman just like her.”
“Political songs like Whatever You Say, Say Nothing have been translated and recorded in German, Danish, Dutch and Hebrew and I was honoured when Tony Benn and Roy Bailey included The Last House In Our Street in their anthology which drew on many centuries of political writing in song and story. Maybe this talk about home brings us back to the idea of performances that make people feel at home - the German writer Christian Morgenstern defined home as “the place where you are understood”, and I believe that if a song makes you feel understood and at home in the world, then you are more likely to listen to it or, better still, sing it!”
“The biggest impact a song can have for me is when it makes someone else feel like singing it. I was very happy to hear singers who I grew up admiring like June Tabor and Maddy Prior recording Almost Every Circumstance, or Andy Irvine and Mick Moloney recording The Man With The Cap, or Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy recording Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. I also like how the power of a song can change the way that people think or feel. A man in Whitby once asked me to sing The Last House In Our Street and told me that he had first come across it while serving in the British Army in Belfast. When he heard the song, he decided that he would leave the army. That was special and so too was the man who I met on the south coast of England a few years ago who told me that he had never tried to sing until, at the age of 65, he had heard me singing The Night Is Young - he has been learning and singing songs ever since! Looking The Loan Of A Spade was included in a special programme celebrating musical highlights of 60 years broadcasting by BBC and ITV and even better, I was asked for the words of that song twice on the same day, one request from a man digging a hole in the street in Aughnacloy and the other from a Methodist minister who wanted to use it in a sermon in Belfast - now that sounds like the makings of a folk song to me!”
People talk often about Colum’s ability to break down cultural barriers with his songs. Colum is typically humble when asked about this.
“Well, firstly I’d say that my musical travels are much more about learning than teaching. I was very impressed by people in Neve Shalom, the first integrated school and village for Jews and Arabs in Israel, and I’m also a great admirer of those involved in integrated schools anywhere in the world. In Neve Shalom I wrote The Child Who Asks You Why:”
‘And love will stoop to conquer minds and weapons fierce and wild
When people learn to see again with the wonder of a child’
“When I look now at those lyrics, I’d say that as well as trying to break down cultural barriers, I’m just trying to remind people, myself included, of the sometimes dormant humanity and incredible generosity that is within us all. Young children can play and strike up some sort of conversation regardless of background or even language. Sadly, our education and upbringing can construct an idea of ‘us and them’ and too many religions and cultures believe that they’ve got the one and only version that matters. It’s tragic and comical all at the same time. Sometimes a song or a melody enters a different part of our being and allows us to see that very clearly.”
Colum has taken his songs all over the word and has played in over 30 countries, proving just how well his songs relate to different communities and cultures, though the experiences vary in different places.
“Ireland is always special because every nuance of the language and humour is understood. I love the folk clubs of Scotland, England and Wales and admire the dedication of those who keep them going. You drive along busy motorways during the day knowing that in the evening you’ll come upon a little gathering of people all ready to listen, join in, or sing a few songs themselves. Germany and Denmark and other European countries have always been great to visit and perform in - so much to see and learn along the way and what people may miss out on in the language they seem to more than make up for in their feeling for the spirit of the songs.”
“Australia is also fascinating – it’s such an ancient country. One day near Sydney, Bob Fagan took me to see drawings of wallabies that are reckoned to be around 20,000 years old. While we were looking at the drawings on the rocks, there was a sudden rustle in the bushes, I turned my head and saw a living 21st century wallaby quietly observing us. It was a goose bump moment – there’s no danger of getting carried away with your own self-importance when you can just turn your head and move through 20,000 years. It makes the work of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Celts seem like modern art.”
In addition to his solo work and that with The Sands Family, Colum has also worked on several collaborative projects which have taken his songs to an even wider audience.
“One of the great things about travelling around clubs and festivals is that you get the chance to hear performers who you would otherwise never have a chance to meet. My first collaboration was with the painter, Colum McEvoy. He illustrated a songbook of mine and we did a kind of audio visual performance (Songs On A Wall) which included an exhibition of his paintings and a concert where he projected slides with details of the paintings. Our first performance was at the Ballyshannon Folk Festival, we brought the show to Europe and also to Kerrville Festival in Texas. The show was also the subject of a BBC television documentary, but probably the most magical performance was in the little cinema in Rothesay during the wonderful Isle of Bute Festival.”
“Festivals are great meeting places - I met Sharon Aviv on stage (literally) during an international story telling concert at Sidmouth Festival. I listened to some of her stories and also her thoughts on using performance in the Middle East as a way of bringing people closer by sharing their stories. We got talking afterwards about how cities like Jerusalem and Belfast have more walls than they really need and began to think about the idea of performing some songs and stories in each other’s countries. The ideas developed by phone and email and we eventually recorded the album Talking To The Wall with songs and stories in English and Hebrew. We performed the show in the Middle East and in these islands as well, at festivals like Sidmouth in England, Common Ground Festival in Scotland and Scealta Shamhna in Dublin. It’s a long way from Rostrevor to Pardes Hanna where Sharon lives, but we get together for festivals and workshops when we can and just last November we performed the show and did workshops at a fascinating gathering of 1001 Middle Eastern Voices at Atlantic College in Wales. The performance is incredibly adaptable and we’ve staged it in all kinds of venues from theatres to schools, festivals, a synagogue (which doubled as an air raid shelter), a converted convent and a Bedouin tent! Amalia Binti Ab Aziz, a Palestinian student at the most recent performance in Wales, said afterwards, “Stories influence me more than anything. Hence the combination of singing and story-telling by Sharon Aviv and Colum Sands was like a dream being performed on the stage of reality for a split second before it ended again. But something changed.”
“The Seedboat album with Maggie MacInnes was also inspired by stories including the one about the voyage of a Barra man who sailed to Newry in The Seedboat (Bàta an t-Sìl) in search of provisions for his wedding. He met a woman in Newry and never returned to the woman he had planned to marry. That story is wrapped up in her song, a beautiful Scottish Gaelic song which I heard from the singing of Maggie MacInnes and her mother Flora MacNeil. In a setting where many ideas are hatched up, I got talking to Maggie about the song at Celtic Connections in Glasgow one year. We saw The Seedboat as a kind of metaphor for the endless voyages, in the shape of language, songs and people, between Ireland and Scotland. Since the boat in the song had set out from Barra, where Maggie’s people come from, and sailed into Newry, where my family come from, it was easy to build on songs and stories that we had heard from our parents and, over a couple of years, we planned to set the boat afloat once more!”
“The resulting performance and album includes songs old and new and I attempted to translate, or rather interpret, some of the Gaelic songs into English. Needless to say these old songs have stood the test of time in their original form and will continue to do so, but I just wanted to open a door into them with the English ‘sub titles’, as it were, in a few verses here and there. It has been an inspiring experience to work with Maggie, she has such a strong feeling for and understanding of the songs handed down from her mother and she sings them beautifully with clarsach, unaccompanied, or sometimes with a bit of guitar from myself. The Seedboat performances continue to be very special and we’ve performed in all kinds of places including Celtic Connections, Common Ground, Edinburgh Festival and an old castle in Newry just a few steps from where the Seedboat had tied up all those years ago. Wherever we play, it’s always a special feeling and the old songs seem to wrap themselves around you and take you sailing off into another world of songs and sounds.”
As well as all this performing, Colum continues to present his Folk Club radio show on BBC Radio Ulster.
“I mentioned the ‘rationing’ of listening time to the wet batteried wireless of my childhood earlier on and I think that this is one reason why radio has always held a kind of magic for me. It’s a great privilege to have the chance to share songs and tunes, old and new, with listeners around the world and I’m lucky to have the support of some great people at BBC Radio Ulster as the Folk Club programme has grown from a half hour slot into a one hour slot and, for the last number of years, a two hour show each Saturday night between 8 and 10pm. I’ve met some amazing musicians along the way and had the chance to co-present or work with broadcasting greats like Archie Fisher, Danny Kyle, Mike Harding and Frank Hennessy, to name but a few.”
“It’s not always a relaxing job. I recall one year at Celtic Connections, just about a minute before we were due to go live on both BBC Radio Scotland and Radio Ulster, some gremlins got into the lines and suddenly technicians were running in all directions, weaving a web of cables and panic all around Archie Fisher and myself. With about 20 seconds to go, Archie turned to me and asked quietly, “Did you ever think of becoming a war correspondent? It would be less stressful than this you know!” It was a great calming moment of humour and, seconds later, the lines were in place and off we went with the show!”
“On my own gig travels I meet many musicians and gather up CDs and interviews. Having experience on both sides of the glass in a studio and also as a performer, I feel I’m in a good position to appreciate the huge amount of work that often goes into recording an album and the importance of airplays, so I do my best to listen to everything that comes my way. There’s a big time commitment in preparing for the radio show in terms of listening, so in ways it leaves less time to prepare new songs and gigs for myself, but it keeps me very much in touch with what’s going on in the folk and traditional world and, of course, there’s often inspiration coming from the vast range of recordings that come floating in my direction.”
In 2012, Colum also presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary entitled The First LP In Ireland, tracing the work of some early folk collectors.
“This was the brainchild of Radio Ulster producer Owen McFadden and he wanted to mark the 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1951 field collections in Ireland by Alan Lomax and Seamus Ennis. The plan was to go and visit some of the singers who had been recorded and also to speak with musicians who had been influenced by the resulting First LP In Ireland. So, we got into a car and drove from one end of Ireland to the other, following in the footprints (or tyre marks) of Ennis and Lomax. It was wonderful to travel into the world of wax cylinders and very moving to meet singers like Kitty Gallagher in Donegal and Maire Ni Cheochain in Cork and hear them describe how the recordings were made when they were young women all those years ago. Maire Ni Cheochain impressed me and taught me something too when she told me that every day, even in her eighties, she is learning something new about singing. Kitty has a piece of ‘keening’ (as most readers will know, from the Irish ag caoineadh : crying) on the album, the other worldly singing style used at wakes to help release the tears in the bereaved and there’s a lovely moment in the programme when we speak about that. Owen McFadden skillfully edited a vast amount of material and the half hour programme was broadcast on BBC Radio Four where it made it to the highlights of the week and has since been nominated for a few awards.”
“In the midst of all of the above, I’ve had very little time to spread the word of my latest album Turn The Corner, so I’m just getting around to working on that now. Most of the 10 songs on it were composed during 2012 and they’re all greatly enhanced by a wonderful line up of musicians who joined me for the recording. There are European concert dates ahead including a big Sands Family gig at the War and Peace themed Bardentreffen Festival in Nuernberg followed by a string of solo summer and autumn gigs in the UK and Germany. I’m hatching a few other ideas at the moment but it’s too early to say more at this stage. In any case, I don’t believe in trying to plan the future too far ahead – experience has taught me that many great songs, musicians and stories are waiting around every corner to play their own part in planning the future for me!”
by Fiona Heywood
Taken from Issue 102 of The Living Tradition. Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop