Somerville’s On the Hill Tavern was the venue for arguably one of the most high-profile Irish music-related events in the US on March 5, as it played host to “Sanctuary Session: Trad Music for Civil Rights,” a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union.
A special appearance by Lúnasa and singer Karan Casey highlighted the show, which included performances by a number of local musicians, followed by an informal session.
But the event was not confined to Boston: 25 other Sanctuary Sessions were held across the US, including Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford in Massachusetts, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Denver and Los Angeles; another took place in Dublin. Altogether, the sessions attracted hundreds of musicians and thousands of onlookers; they also raised nearly $37,000 – $5,160 at the Somerville event alone – all of it going to the ACLU.
Boston, however, was truly the hub for the Sanctuary Sessions. The idea originated with musician Noel Scott, a Galway native who has been living in the area for 25 years. He enlisted several of his fellow local musicians to brainstorm, organize, and spread the idea elsewhere.
“It was wonderful to see the community respond like that,” said Scott, interviewed a few days after the Sanctuary Sessions day. “Not just here, obviously, but all over the US, as well as in Ireland. Something like this makes you think anything is possible when you get enough people together.”
While many participants and attendees shared concerns about the Trump administration’s actions and statements on immigration and other issues, Scott said the impetus for the Sanctuary Session went beyond sociopolitical views and political party affiliations. As he explained, it was more about a need to appeal to solidarity and common values in a time of increasing anxiety – about women’s rights and economic inequality, for example – that had been building for a few years. Trump’s executive order on immigration was “the final straw,” said Scott.
“From what I have been seeing, there are many rights being challenged – not just those of immigrants. It just felt like this was the time for us to come together as a community and celebrate who we are” – with music as the focus. Adding substance to the symbolism, he said, was the idea of fundraising for the ACLU, given its support for civil rights for all Americans
And he had an additional thought: Why not make it a national event?
Fortunately, Scott had a circle of friends and acquaintances who could help make it happen, in Boston and elsewhere, such as fellow Irish ex-pat and Boston-area resident Sean Clohessy, Owen Marshall in Portland, Me., and Marian Makins in Philadelphia – who came up with the name “Sanctuary Sessions.” The word went out, a Facebook page went up, and plans were in motion in Boston and elsewhere.
The On the Hill Tavern event line-up also included the Coyne Family; Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello; the Michael Boyle Dancers; the quintet of Tina Lech, Ted Davis, Nathan Gourley, Laura Feddersen and Martin Langer; Paddy Saul and Jimmy Ryan; Kevin De Rosa; and young musicians from Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann music school. Several guest speakers, among them former Lowell Mayor Patrick Murphy, also were in the program.
Over the course of the afternoon, the audience inside the On the Hill Tavern grew steadily. The space in front of the stage filled up with parents and children, many of them early elementary school-age or younger: Some drew pictures, shared (or didn’t share) toys, or snuggled with their mothers and fathers; one small toddler went up to the edge of the stage to watch in fascination as Irish dancer Jackie O’Riley performed.
The coup, of course, was getting big-time performers Lúnasa and Casey involved in the event, which took a bit of luck, as Scott explained: They had played in New York City the night before and were on their way north, but a mid-day stop-off in Somerville happened to fit into their itinerary.
So it was that at a little past noon, Casey took the microphone and, along with the band, launched into Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Accounting,” an anthem of activism (“Did you demand any answers?/The who and the what and the reason why?/Did you ever question the set-up?”).
During the concert, Casey spoke about the experience of having lived in the US as an immigrant – something she and the Lúnasa members all shared – and called for greater understanding and appreciation of the contributions immigrants make to their communities.
“We want to raise consciousness,” she said, “not just dollars.”
At the end of the set, Casey read a poem she had written about immigrants – “people who make America, day in and day out” – as an introduction to what she called “the real national anthem of America”: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
“Make Guthrie proud. Sing out loud,” she said, and led the audience in the chorus.
Scott said the Sanctuary Session seemed to make an impression on all who were there, even those of a young age. “My seven-year-old was humming ‘This Land Is Your Land’ the next morning as she got ready to go to school.”
For more about the Sanctuary Sessions, see facebook.com/pg/SanctuarySessionsForACLU.