Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny was born in London in 1947. She developed a love of music listening to her grandmother sing traditional songs and was trained in classical piano, but her parents insisted she pursue a practical career. That backfired when she headed off to nursing school, where she quickly began singing in folk clubs and dropped out to pursue her passion. She developed a reputation as a singer of traditional songs and modern folk and began writing her own songs. She recorded an album with prog-folk band the Strawbs, demos for which included an early version of her masterpiece, Who Knows Where the Time Goes. (Judy Collins quickly covered it as the title track of her 1968 release.) When Judy Dyble left Fairport Convention after their first album, Denny easily won the audition to replace her and helped shape the band’s foray into folk rock. After three albums in little over a year — including the brilliant What We Did On Our Holidays and the trad-rock foundation Liege and Lief — Denny left to form Fotheringay with future husband Trevor Lucas. That project only lasted one album, and Denny launched a solo career. Her debut, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, was a delightful mess on which she played with a variety of sounds, supported by her legion of talented friends. For the follow-up Lucas took over production duties and tightened things up a bit. The result is a fine set that shows off the legendary vocal and musical power of Sandy Denny.
- It’ll Take A Long Time
- Sweet Rosemary
- For Nobody to Hear
- Tomorrow Is A Long Time
- Quiet Joys of Brotherhood
- Listen, Listen
- The Lady
- Bushes and Briars
- it Suits Me Well
- The Music Weaver
Denny and Lucas recruited a great backing band — Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, Richard Thompson on guitar and mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass, Timi Donald on drums, John Kirkpatrick covering keyboards, and Linda Peters (soon to be Thompson) on backing vocals. Sneaky Pete Kleinow pitches in from time to time with his slide guitar magic. That much talent could overwhelm a lesser performer, but Denny is clearly the star of the show, writing eight of the ten tracks. She plays piano and acoustic guitar, but her voice is the magical element that holds the album together.
Things start off with familiar territory, exploring themes of the sea. It’ll Take A Long Time is s a wonderful track that feels timeless and traditional, a clear successor to her Fairport work (including a great Thompson guitar line). Wistful and cautiously optimistic, it captures the essence of Sandy Denny’s music. Sweet Rosemary is a lovely ballad, a story song that fits snugly into the folk canon. For Nobody to Hear is the most like Grassman, a rambunctious song that shows off Denny’s looser musical side without detracting from the album’s overall flow. It also features a fun brass section arranged by Allen Toussaint. Denny was a big Dylan fan, often singing his songs live. Her cover of Tomorrow Is A Long Time is a wonderful interpretation, featuring a great contribution from Kleinow. It’s a testament to Denny’s skills — both as a singer and writer — that this song fits in so well.
Richard Farina wrote the poem Quiet Joys of Brotherhood and set it to the music of the Irish traditional ballad My Lagan Love. Denny loved the song, recording a version with Fairport that wound up being cut from Liege and Lief. On Sandy, she sings it a cappella, multi-tracking her vocals to great effect. It’s a powerful centerpiece, gaining extra grace from Swarbrick’s beautiful fiddle coda.
Listen, Listen is a traveling song, a pretty ode to music and its magic. Classic Denny, it’s one of her strongest songs and features a sweet, clear vocal. The Lady continues in that vein, feeling somewhat autobiographical. Wistful and quiet, it captures Denny’s essence well. Bushes and Briars conjures up a wintry landscape and the quiet desolation of the English churchyard. With a nod to the rose and briar of Barbara Allen, the dissection of a relationship contrasted with the setting is one of Denny’s most complex lyrics, carried off effortlessly.
On It Suits Me Well, Denny channels the spirit of a series of travellers and the stories they tell. It’s the most explicit exploration of side two’s power-of-tales theme, honest and moving. Things wrap up with The Music Weaver, a tribute to Richard Thompson that could easily refer to Denny’s own talents.
Sandy Denny recorded an amazing variety of songs in her sadly short career — including a Led Zeppelin lead vocal — and took part in some of the finest early moments of trad-rock and the British folk revival. Sandy lets her soar on her own, capturing her rich talents in ten moving tracks.
FURTHER LISTENING: All of Denny’s 1968-69 work with Fairport Convention is essential for fans of folk rock. Fotheringay isn’t quite as magical, but their one eponymous release lets the singer find her feet as a band leader. She only recorded four solo albums, interrupted by a brief return to Fairport in 1975-76 for the lackluster Rising For the Moon. North Star Grassman and the Ravens has some splendid moments but never quite comes together. Like An Old Fashioned Waltz tries too hard and is frequently buried by Lucas’ heavy-handed production, a disappointment after his skillful work on Sandy. Rendezvous is solid but clearly suffers from the singer’s personal demons.
She died in 1978 after falling down a flight of stairs, leaving behind an impressive legacy. Almost everything she ever put on tape has been preserved, so many compilations and deluxe editions of her work exist (including the daunting, 19-disc box set Sandy Denny). Most of the tracks not included on the main albums are curiosities or items of interest to serious fans. The two-disc No More Sad Refrains provides a nice overview of her career.