This is an incredible four record box set. It is a brilliant retrospective of Sandy Denny’s career featuring 43 songs, 26 of which were either previously unreleased or had a limited release.
Memory. I’ve written about memory before and how our memories can be distorted. Here’s a perfect example. I can clearly remember driving from Coventry to Worcester with my good friend Paul listening to “The Banks Of The Nile”. I can see the Malvern Hills appearing on the horizon and the two of us listening in silence to the wondrous beauty of the song. I spoke to Paul about this a couple of months ago and he can clearly remember the same scenario but we were driving from Harlow to Worcester. Who knows? Maybe both memories are correct – it’s such an outstanding song and performance that we could have played it on any journey we did together around this time.
Sandy Denny joined Fairport Convention in 1968 but before that and after leaving school, she had started nurse training, enrolled at art school, had a relationship with Jackson C. Frank and recorded an album as lead singer of The Strawbs. As a member of Fairport Convention she recorded three incredible albums, “What We Did On Our Holidays”, “Unhalfbricking” and “Liege And Lief”. In 1969, she left Fairport Convention and formed the band Fotheringay with her boyfriend, Trevor Lucas, releasing one eponymous album in 1970. Subsequently, she released four solo albums, “The North Star Grassman And The Ravens” (1971), “Sandy” (1972), “Like An Old Fashioned Waltz” (1974) and “Rendezvous” (1977). She briefly rejoined Fairport Convention for their 1975 album “Rising For The Moon”. In my opinion, every one of these nine albums has at least one amazing song on it and at least one forgettable song on it. This compilation cherry picks the best songs from each album. (There have been numerous posthumously released compilations).
Sandy Denny died in 1978 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. She was 31 years old.
In 2007, her song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was voted by a BBC poll to be the “Favourite Folk Track Of All Time”. Linda Thompson, a good friend of hers, remembers “Sandy saying to me, ‘I’m going to try to write some songs,’ and I thought to myself, ‘That’s ridiculous. She won’t be able to do that.’ We were young, and there weren’t many women writing songs. And she played ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, and I nearly fell off my chair.” There’s an excellent overview of her life written by John Harris in The Guardian in 2017.
I’m a bit daunted writing this blog. There are forty three songs here and I think that about thirty of them are some of the best “folk” songs I’ve ever heard. One of the many enjoyable things about listening to these songs is that there’s a winning combination of great melodies, great lyrics, great instrumentation, great playing and great singing. Everything’s great. And “great” is not an overused word in this context. So I’m just going to pick a few great songs at random and write about them. But probably not in a great way.
“One Way Donkey Ride” is from “Rendezvous” and features Steve Winwood on electric piano and organ. It’s a beautiful song about the misgivings she is feeling as she contemplates whether or not to embark on a relationship. “Someone is drowning down there in the flood but this river will dry by tomorrow. Is it ocean or stream, this love in my blood. Bringer of joy or of sorrow?”
“Nothing More” was originally released on the Fotheringay album. The version here was recorded live in Holland and is even more dramatic than the studio version. The singer’s offer of help to a friend is rejected because of a lack of trust. “My friend I know you’ve suffered although you are still young. Why was it you who’d not take help from anyone?” It’s another very sad song.
Side Six features three beautiful songs in sequence, “Friends”, “Solo” and “After Halloween”. The first of these is from “Old Fashioned Waltz” and my interpretation of this song is that someone in despair is rejecting help from friends – a similar scenario to “Nothing More”. When she sings “I’ll be just fine now, so long“, it’s clear that this is not the case. “Solo” was released on “Old Fashioned Waltz” but this stunning performance, featuring amazing fiddle playing from Dave Swarbrick, was recorded live in Los Angeles. Whilst the words can be interpreted as a reaction to her leaving Fairport Convention, it also describes the aftermath of a relationship breakup. “I’ve just gone solo. Do you play solo? Ain’t life a solo?” “After Halloween” was recorded in 1972 and the only instrumentation is Sandy Denny’s twelve string guitar. The song was not released in her lifetime. The song concerns more insecurity in relationships. “But who am I and do we really live these days at all?”
“I’m A Dreamer” is from “Rendezvous” and describes how she is able to communicate through her music even if, at other times, “you make me nervous when I see you.” This is a full band arrangement with lovely guitar from Jerry Donahue and a dramatic string arrangement.
“By The Time It Gets Dark” is utterly lovely. It’s been covered by Mary Black and Clem Snide. It’s uncharacteristically cheerful. “Light up your face, baby, let’s get going. Want to see a change in those weary eyes. We’ll have some fun, take a boat out rowing. Why on earth should life be so serious?” The song was unreleased in her lifetime; she is only accompanied by her twelve string guitar.
“The Banks Of The Nile” from Fotheringay’s album is one of my favourite songs of all time. I never tire of hearing it which is surprising because ballads can sometimes get over familiar as the words don’t need re-interpreting. Alternate verses are sung by the song’s protagonists, Willie and Nancy. Willie has joined the army and has been called to serve in Egypt. Nancy cannot bear to be parted so she cuts off her hair and enlists as a man. Inevitably, in the last verse they both die on the battlefield. Sandy Denny’s singing is sublime and Jerry Donohue’s electric guitar is wonderfully understated.
The final song on this compilation is a live version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, recorded live in 1974 with Fairport Convention. The song was originally released on “Unhalfbricking” and has been covered by many people including Kate Rusby, Rufus Wainwright, Richard Thompson and Nina Simone. This version is slow and sung very passionately with Sandy Denny wringing every possible emotion out of every syllable. Although I would never have thought it possible, it’s even sadder than the original. Once again, Jerry Donohue’s electric guitar is beautifully sympathetic. It was one of the first songs that she ever wrote. With her early death, the song becomes even sadder with its reflections on how some aspects of life are timeless. Including her music, obviously.