Published in the Ithaca Journal May 19, 2005

Karan Casey, Burns Sisters team for benefit

by Bill Chaisson

Irish singer Karan Casey and the Burns Sisters will perform at a benefit concert for "the St. Patrickís Day Four" at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 22 at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Binghamton. Proceeds will go toward the defense fund for "the Four".

On St. Patrickís Day 2003, days before the start of the Iraq War, Daniel Burns, Peter deMott, Clare Grady and Theresa Grady were civilly disobedient at the Army/Marine recruiting center in Lansing. They were arrested and tried for several misdemeanors in county court last year. The proceedings ended in a mistrial, but district attorney George Dentes referred the matter on to Federal authorities. The Federal charges include a felony --conspiracy to impede an officer of the United States--which carries a possible six-year prison term.

The district court is in Binghamton and the concert will be held there to raise local awareness of the trial. The benefit is the latest in a long line for both Casey and the Burns Sisters. And they are part of a long tradition of using music to bring attention to political issues.

From the 1930s through the 1950s Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others used folk music to galvanize the American union movement. Since the 1960s music has served all manner of social and political issues. The tradition of protest songs is, in part, inherited from the Irish, who have been writing republican songs like "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" and tunes like "The Rights of Man" since at least the late 18th century. Rebel songs were made popular in the US in the 1960s by the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners as part of the "folk revival" on both sides of the Atlantic. One of Caseyís mentors, Dublin ballad singer Frank Harte, is fond of reminding her that "winners get to write history, but those who suffer write the songs."

When Karan Casey phoned from her home in Cork, Ireland and was told that the subject was to be politics and music, she said without irony "Great, my favorite topics." In her youth her awareness of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland made her acutely conscious of politics. "Growing up in Ireland you learn to think about power and where it lies. The subject of 'the North' was with us every day. The violence was very bad in the 1970s and 80s.  It led me to question the political status quo elsewhere."

Christy Moore, one of the founders of Planxty and a well-known folk singer in his own right, was Caseyís first role model. It was her rendition of Moore's "Native", about El Salvador, that first caught Ellen Grady's attention in a 1994 concert.  Grady, a long-time activist with CUSLAR (Committee on US/Latin America Relations), made a point of thanking Casey for the song after the show.  According to Grady, Casey told her that she was 

rarely thanked for performing political songs. This initial courtesy formed the basis for a friendship.

A decade later, Casey says, "People seem to have less appetite for political songs than they used to, especially when it gets close to home. You can't sing about the North in Ireland, and in the US you can't insult the president. This took me a while to get used to, because in Ireland insulting politicians is a sort of sport. Not in the US though."

Like a growing number of people, Casey has noticed that the American media is not providing as much information about conditions in Iraq as do media in other countries. With a mixture of amusement and frustration she said, "I'll be watching Fox News while Iím on tour in the US and find that Iím yelling at the television." This is part of what has moved her to include the St. Patrick's Day Four benefit in her current tour. "They were right to do what they did and they were right to use what [means] they had to get their point across," she said heatedly. "How else do you get people's attention when the media wonít tell the full story?"

The Burns Sisters' father, John, was the mayor of Binghamton in the 1960s and later worked in the administration of New York governor Hugh Carey. "Politics has always been at the forefront of our brains," said Jeannie Burns, "but we kind of mix our spiritual thing with our political thing, donít we?" They have been doing it for years. "No More Silence", a stunning protest song written by Jeannie and Marie Burns, first appeared on Songs of the Heart (1992). "The Kingís Gonna Fall", written by Sheila and found on Annie Burns' Days in Italy (2002), includes the lines "You can hold the people down/But the spirit's gonna rise".

Annie and Jeannie Burns both have to think a little about what benefits the Burns Sisters have done in the past. This is because they have done so many, as it turns out. "Well," begins Jeannie, "there was 'Take Back the Night' in Ithaca and a concert for famine relief [in Ethiopia]. That was years ago. In 1999 we did a benefit for the Green Party and last summer we did a Howard Dean thing in Massachusetts. That was something designed to keep the 'Deaniac' movement together."

When asked whether she thought benefit concerts really did any good, Annie insists, "Music is a vehicle for change, for changing people's hearts, getting to the core. It"s a lot better than just yelling at them in a demonstration." Karan Casey said much the same thing in response to this question. "Music," she said firmly, "goes into the mind and the heart in a different way than just talking. You can really tell the truth with a song."

Who goes to benefit concerts? Annie Burns hopes that all people "regardless of party" will turn out, because they understand that the St. Patrick's Day Four "are honorable people following a certain path.  They are an example of what true Americans do: they speak out."

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Last revised:  May 20, 2005