Protest songs

Singer-songwriter Colum Sands
Singer-songwriter Colum Sands

By David Hennessy

He has already addressed the situation of his native Northern Ireland in songs like Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. Colum Sands, of The Sands Family who were so influential in the folk world of the 1960s, addresses the same topic in his latest album, Turn the Corner.

When Colum was asked to write about the flag protests for Germany’s largest weekly newspaper Die Zeit, the song Two Angry Dogs was born. The song details how two pets growl at each other from opposite sides of the road simply because they have been taught to.

Colum told The Irish World: “The masters of the dogs had taught them all they know. I just wanted people to think: How much have you been taught? How much have you been brainwashed? And how much does that affect your own life? The more time you spend blaming other people for things, the less time you have to shine your own light in the world.

“Often you can write about a very serious matter in a funny way that disarms people because we do take things incredibly seriously sometimes. What’s a flag? Only a bit of cloth flapping about in the wind, there’s certainly no nourishment of any kind in a flag. I think it’s good sometimes to show the ridiculous as well as the serious sides of some of these issues.

“I think song writing’s about communication. You have to address the problem but be aware that we are all programmed in certain ways that certain words or phrases could make us just stop listening.

“There is a lot of power in a song and it can lift people’s hearts and just make them feel better or make them see a situation in a different way. I suppose a lot of the songs I’ve written over the years, because I live up here in the North of Ireland, some of them I hope have helped to show people what they have in common rather than what divides them.

“Many years ago, I wrote a song about that called Whatever You Say, Say Nothing specifically about the situation here but it has been translated into Hebrew and German and Danish and Dutch. In every society, you get people who are divided and thinking of an ‘us and them’ situation and it’s really great if you can write songs and sing songs that help people to see maybe we’re not so different after all.£

The song The Spirit Lives On sees Colum address a local tragedy, a 1889 train journey from Armagh to Warrenpoint in which 88 people, many of them children, died: “It’s always good to see when songs appear to have some sort of effect.

“Even if people knew nothing of that specific disaster, when they hear about it, it touches them. I wrote the song for a play [Our Ma] Patch Connolly wrote.

Award-winning London based musician and singer, Etaoin Rowe
Award-winning London based musician and singer, Etaoin Rowe

“When that play was being performed, the idea within the play was that different members of the cast would read out the name of those youngsters who had been killed. A lot of them couldn’t do it. In rehearsals, even 125 years later, a lot of people broke down and said, ‘we can’t do this’.

“There never had been any memorial put up to them and I made that point in the song and the song started floating around about a year ago. Just a few months ago, a monument was put up in Armagh. I’m sure the song wasn’t the full reason or anything like it but all these things help.”

Also featured on the album is The Glassmaker’s Hand which has already helped to save the Stourbridge glass museum from closure: “It was very much in danger of being closed but I see now that it’s permanently open now. It’s nice to throw a little bit of help towards things with songs as well as just writing them for people to enjoy or maybe to provide some food for thought.”

Also well known for presenting Folk Club on BBC Radio Ulster since the 1990s, Colum took some time out to produce the material for his latest collection: “It’s a wonderful job to have but it takes up a lot of your mind space and creative space so I felt I had to just take a year away from listening to stuff and I cut down on touring as well. I came to the conclusion that being really busy all the time is a form of laziness in that it provides you with an excuse to stay away from the very important work of just thinking about what’s going on around you and what you’re doing with your life.”

Turn the Corner features Brian Finnegan of Flook and Kan, London-born Karen Tweed and Colum’s own siblings Anne, Tommy and Ben. Colum will be playing both old and new material when he tours the UK form this week. He also speaks highly of an exciting talent from London that he recently encountered.

“I do enjoy getting over the UK. It’s a very interesting circuit there. It’s very rare that I play in the London area and I know that there’s a fantastic Irish community there.

“On the radio programme I spoke about earlier, I did a feature on the Fleadh Cheoil recently in Sligo. There was a young girl on from London called Etaoin Rowe and she’s a fantastic singer and she won the All Ireland in Newly Composed Ballads in English.

“I was down at the Fleadh and I saw her in the final and I sent her a message, would she come up. She came up to Belfast and recorded a really good piece, got fantastic reaction to it.

“She has won (previously) playing whistle and lilting as well. She’s the ability to put the song across very well onstage too.

“I suppose just meeting her reminded me of all that incredible well of talent and energy in the Irish community. It’s great to have the chance to go into the midst of that for the Walthamstow gig.”

Turn the Corner is out on October 1.

Colum plays Willows Folk Club on September 10, Newport Fugitives Athletic Club in Wales on September 11, Old Cranleigh Sports Club on September 12, Post Graduate Centre in Poole on September 13, Walthamstow Folk Club on September 14, Faversham Folk Club on September 17, Lymn Folk Club on September 18 and Hickleton Golf Club in Doncaster on Sepember 19.

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