Irish singer Tommy Sands adds new meaning to an old classic

Whether it be Judy Garland, Ray Price or Bing Crosby, most any crooner worth his or her salt can belt out a show-stopping rendition of the classic Irish lament "Danny Boy."

But one of Northern Ireland's favorite sons, political activist and singer-songwriter Tommy Sands, has brought new meaning to the old standard.

New meaning may not be perfectly accurate. The legendary singer has recorded "The Young Man's Dream," which is based on the original version of "Danny Boy." The song is slated for his new album, "Let the Circle Be Wide," which he plans to release early this fall. Rather than dishing up the familiar, Sands decided to trace the song's roots to the 1600s and deliver it in its original form.

" 'Danny Boy' was written by Fred Weatherly," said Sands in a phone interview from Washington, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, the day before his tour of the United States kicked off. "The melody is hundreds of years old. I sang the original words."

Sands called it a "dream song," which has special meaning to the Irish, he said.

"The word eaisling means dream, or vision," he said. "There are many songs of this genre. It promotes allegiance to her. And it turns out the woman is Ireland."

There was a time when poets and writers couldn't use Ireland in their writings, he said, because of oppressive British rule. So it became a way of dreaming into existence a new reality, he said. It was especially appropriate in his native Northern Ireland.

"I did a lot of research into the song," he said. "The act of dreaming is important in Irish literature and drama. We believe that never to dream is never to do. Dreams also separate us from the animal kingdom."

There also is a point in "Danny Boy" that has evolved into a crooner's signature moment, he said, where there's a high note as the singer notes, 'I'll be hee-ere in sunshine or in shadow.' In the original, that's a grace note," Sands said. "There's a fleeting moment where the singer surrenders to the song, and not the other way around. The song's not meant to show off the voice."

As in those of so many Irish artists, music has been a part of Sands' family for hundreds of years. His parents played, as did his grandparents, and now Sands' children perform alongside him on tour. Sands first brought Fionan and Moya to the States in 1986 when they were just 3 and 4 years old.

Yet, he said, neither really had an affinity for performing. In fact, Moya studied musicology in college, but when she learned her father was going to perform at a festival in India and the only way to go along was to be part of the band, the musicologist soon turned into the musician.

"The next day I heard the fiddle coming from her room; she was in there practicing," Sands said. "She was always a good singer. So she came with me to India."

Fionan leaned more toward rock, performing at one point with Sinead O'Connor.

"Both of them are good musicians," he said, "and it's so great to have them onstage with me. I love to look over and see them grow as performers."

One song Sands will likely sing onstage with Moya is the haunting "A Stoir Mo Chroi," which means "Love of My Heart." Moya sings background on the studio version, due to be released on the 14-song "Let the Circle Be Wide." The song traces its roots through the Sands family back to the early 1900s, he said, when famed poet and politician Brian O'Higgins wrote the song for Sands' uncle.

That uncle, a missionary priest, had been imprisoned in China. Finally, after his release, the uncle returned to Ireland. But at night, Sands said, the uncle would wake up screaming. It proved to be such a moving story that it prompted O'Higgins, a one-time president of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein and a political prisoner on several occasions, to write the song.

"My uncle lived with us when he was old," Sands said. "He would tell us those stories. He was always worried about going to sleep. But when he heard music, he knew he was at home. It's a sad but beautiful song."

Perhaps the most unusual song on the new album is firmly embedded in Irish tradition yet draws on a quirky Eastern influence. "Rovers of Wonder" includes Mongolian throat singers who create a mesmerizing locust like buzz that gives the song an eerie, earthy feel.

"My wife is French, and we were in Paris when I saw this group of Mongolian throat singers," Sands said. "Their sound was a lot like busking (playing in a public place to earn money), and it reminded me of home.

"It's been said that Irish music has more in common with Eastern music than Western music, so I asked if they'd like to join me, and they said they'd love to."

Sands wrote new words to the song, and they recorded it. But it left Sands with a dilemma.

"I don't know where they are," he said. "They were traveling around to make money. They love their horses, and when they want to buy new ones, they travel around Europe doing their music to earn money. I just hope someday to track them down."

© Rick Bell, The North County Times