Tribute to Sandy Denny

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard National Public Radio say that “many people have no idea who Sandy Denny was.” Surely there was some mistake. How could anyone who loves music not recognize Sandy Denny (1947-1978), the voice that made Fairport Convention’s 1969 album Liege and Leaf one of the most important recordings of the 20th-century? So I asked around—young folks as well as folks old enough to remember the 1960s. Zilch! And they don’t remember Fairport Convention either.

Okay—education time. There’s nothing startling about mixing electric and acoustic instruments these days, but almost nobody did that before Fairport. When Dylan plugged in at Newport in 1965, he put his acoustic guitar in mothballs. Fairport didn’t exactly invent folk rock, but what they did was stunning for its time—they took century’s old ballads and amped them. They were more than pioneers. Denny on vocals, Dave Mattacks on drums, Ashley Hutchings on bass, Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, Simon Nicol and a young Richard Thompson on guitars! That’s not a band; it’s the gathering of gods who laid down the standards by which mortals would be measured. Nobody had ever before heard a ballad like “Tamlin” played with thumping bass, wailing electric guitar, and manic fiddle. And none who heard it could forget Denny’s clear, steady voice standing as the calm amidst the mayhem, “Matty Groves”—another classic. Ditto the werewolf tale “Reynardine,” only marginally less edgy than “Crazy Man Michael,” a song that is the ultimate cautionary tale for braggarts. But it’s Denny’s voice that lingers after the tales have been told—pure, strong, lovely, and not a hint of a quaver or strain.

Denny cut her teeth in folk clubs in the mid-1960s at a time in which the British folk revival was on its last legs. In 1967 she joined The Strawbs, a so-so rock band until Denny added some balladry to their repertoire. It was with them that she first dusted off her own "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?," quite possibly the best song written in the 20th-century. (If not, I’m only exaggerating slightly.) By the time Denny recorded it again with Fairport on their 1969 Unhalfbricking release, she had it down. It’s been covered by many singers, but only Judy Collins approached the glory of the original.

Sandy Denny made three albums with Fairport in 1968-69 and then formed her own band, Fotheringay, in 1970. It only lasted one record and broke up when producer Joe Boyd left for America. Before he split, Sandy’s recording of “Banks of the Nile” became a classic, and her own “The Sea” won acclaim for its innocence and beauty. She went on to make three solo records featuring her own compositions between 1970 and 1974, with Sandy (1972) the best of the lot. In 1974-75 she rejoined Fairport (minus Richard Thompson) for another go-round, though it was only partly a folk rock ensemble by then. One more solo record in 1977 included her fine “No More Refrains,” and then there were none. Denny died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 21, 1978, four days after falling down a flight of stairs. A freak accident or the aftermath of too much drinking? Both stories circulate and by then Denny had fallen prey to the temptations that laid low too many of her contemporaries: too much smoking, too many controlled substances, too much frustration with the music industry.

If you’re one of the ones who have “no idea” who Sandy Denny was,” start with the fact that she was twice voted the best singer in Britain. Move on to the tidbit that she’s the only guest artist to appear on a Led Zeppelin album—her 1971 duet with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore.” Consider that she was so highly regarded that there have been ten posthumous Sandy Denny releases, that she inspired virtually everyone who heard her, and that most people would have stopped if they made an album as good as Liege and Leaf or written a song as perfect as “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

Every song mentioned in this piece is on YouTube. Listen to one and you’ll want to hear them all. Listen—and let your education begin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Totally right on brother! Let me add mention of the title song "Fotheringay"....a gem!