Tommy Sand: Ballad of loss for my brother Eugene
The musician tells Ivan Little about losing his sibling, his one-man show in Belfast this week and his hopes for peace here
It's almost 40 years since Tommy Sands struggled to understand those awful words in broken English from his German host, but the conversation is still frozen in his mind with chilling clarity.
The Mayobridge, Co Down musician and peace campaigner was on tour with his siblings in the Sands Family in Europe in November 1975 when he was told by the man they were staying with that "something terrible" had happened to his family.
Tommy recalls: "He'd woken us up early with a cup of coffee, which was strange in itself, and his English wasn't very good. Initially, I thought he meant that someone had complained about our concert the night before and that maybe they were unhappy that we didn't play long enough, or well enough."
But in an instant the language barrier came crashing down as Tommy realised the man was telling him his youngest brother, Eugene, was dead.
Says Tommy (69): "We had a free day after the previous evening's concert and Eugene decided to drive on his own from Hamburg to Osnabruck. I heard the words, lorry and burst tyre, but it was a while before I could take it all in."
Tommy wrote a song, You Will Never Grow Old, about the brother he called Dino and this week he will dedicate it to all the people who died too young as he appears in a new one-man stage show about his life at the Baby Grand at Belfast's Grand Opera House.
He says: "It's always difficult singing that song, but not half as hard as it was coming home to our parents without their youngest son. They didn't believe it until we returned."
"I will never forget that their whole bed shook with their crying and Dino's passing made me realise the value of life," adds Tommy, whose two-hour show, The Ballad of a Songman, is a mix of storytelling, videos, poetry, politics, songs and tall tales.
Tommy says: "It's also about people - people I saw over hedges and through gates. And it's also about the importance of music.
"Where we lived, people from both sides of the divide came to our house to listen to music, and their toes were tapping to the same rhythms regardless of any political or religious affiliations."
A few months ago, Tommy's show, which was directed by playwright Martin Lynch, went down so well in New York that it's being brought back for an encore in a bigger theatre in the city, where a few years back Tommy shared the stage of Madison Square Garden with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez.
The concert was a four-hour 90th birthday party for legendary American singer Pete Seeger, who has since passed away.
Seeger was a friend of Tommy's, but then most people who meet this gentle and easy-going Rostrevor resident do fall under his captivating charms. So much so, that his Wikipedia entry lists one of his instruments as "charisma".
Seeger and Sands wrote a song together for peace, The Music of Healing, a title which went on to become the philosophy, the bedrock behind an annual bridge-building gathering near Tommy's home on the shores of Carlingford Lough.
On one fondly remembered night, Jeffrey Donaldson and Gerry Adams stopped short of a handshake, but they did sing from the same songsheet on Where Have All the Flowers Gone, a Seeger classic which was performed in Rostrevor by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.
"There were tears in people's eyes. It didn't matter that the two men didn't shake hands. They were acknowledging the fallen on both sides," says Tommy, who had long been in the forefront of moves to encourage a whole new way of political thinking in Northern Ireland.
Outside the talks before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at Stormont in 1998, Tommy was a familiar figure, playing his music of hope with a group of children, Lambeg drummers and cellist Vedran Smailovic, who was known as the "Cellist of Sarajevo", where he performed openly at the height of the Bosnian conflict.
"We were trying to create a storm of chords rather than discords," says Tommy, "and the politicians came out of the talks from time to time to join in the singing."
Tommy, who once got the Rev Ian Paisley telling jokes and Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich singing an Orange song on the same Downtown Radio show, was back at Stormont for another ground-breaking programme in 2002, when the power-sharing administration collapsed after a police raid on Sinn Fein's offices on the hill.
Tommy urged the politicians not to despair and among his musical guests in the Great Hall that night were the PUP's David Ervine and Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun.
In 2011, Tommy organised another party in the Long Gallery, where Danny Kennedy sang songs, Jim Wells told jokes and Caitriona Ruane recited poetry.
No one's in any mood for parties up at Stormont these days, as the Assembly and the Executive stumble on from crisis to crisis. But Tommy thinks all the bad blood will come good in the end.
"It's not when things are at their worst that people despair the most, because they don't even dare to hope at those times. It's when things are moving at Stormont and the rate of movement is so slow that people tend to be more disheartened.
"I think that we've travelled an awfully long distance. We are trying to tackle something in a few years that has been building up for hundreds of years and I think we are getting there, but it won't happen overnight. There's been a lot of poison in the system and it's going to take a while to get it out."
Tommy knows there are people who don't share his optimism, but he has always lived in hope - even when there appeared to be none.
And it was during the darkest days of the tit-for-tat sectarian killings that Tommy was moved to write what many people believe is his finest song, There Were Roses, which is a powerful commentary on the Troubles.
The song tells the tragic story of the murders in South Armagh of two friends that Tommy knew - one Protestant, one Catholic.
Tommy changed the names of the victims to spare the men's relatives any more suffering than they already endured, but the song became an anthem for peace - and not just here.
"It's been translated into a number of different languages in countries where people are experiencing something similar to us, in the Middle East for example," says Tommy, whose Roses has been recorded more than a hundred times.
His two favourite renditions of the song were both sung by women - Kathy Mattea, from West Virginia, and Dungiven's Cara Dillon, whose version featured over the end credits for a Billy Connolly TV series.
With the passage of time, Roses has become almost an historical piece here - especially after the advances towards peace in Northern Ireland.
But Tommy believes it's still important to sing it. "I think we have to constantly remember where we have come from with our past."
And Roses is part of the Ballad of the Songman show, which opens on Wednesday night at the Baby Grand, where Tommy's son, Fionan, will be his technician. Fionan, who's a talented musician in his own right, will also join his father on stage for a song, though his sister, Moya, can't make it.
Tommy still performs regularly with his siblings in The Sands Family and several of them will be among his guests at the Baby Grand.
But another long-running fixture in Tommy's life ended last year as the plug was pulled on his Downtown Radio show.
Tommy had presented Country Ceili for a remarkable 37 years, from 1977.
"It was a wrench for the show to be dropped," says Tommy. "It was a great way to keep in touch with people."
But, in hindsight, he now acknowledges the axing of Country Ceili was probably a blessing in disguise.
"Planning the programme was always on my mind throughout the week and, now that it's gone, I find I have more space in my life," says Tommy.
He is one of the mainstays behind the successful Fiddler's Green Festival in Rostrevor every year, which has inducted musical giants like The Dubliners and literary greats like Seamus Heaney into its hall of fame.
Tommy has been on the receiving end of his fair share of awards, too, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Nevada in recognition of his peace role and of his encouragement of prisoners in Reno to write their own songs with which to defend themselves in court.
They've even had a Tommy Sands day in Reno, which is just about as different a place from Mayobridge as you can get.
Not that Tommy says he's actually from Mayobridge itself, but rather insists his family home was "near places".
"If I told you where it was, you'd be none the wiser," he laughs.
- Tommy Sands - Ballad of the Songman, Grand Opera House, from this Wednesday, October 7 to Saturday, October 10 at 8pm. For tickets (£13-£15), ring the box office on tel: 028 9024 1919, or book online at www.goh.co.uk