I’ve always thought of Sandy Denny as an autumn singer. Some of her best songs are reflections on the passage of time, a phenomenon most acutely experienced during that time of transition between summer and winter, when longer nights and dying leaves remind us of our own mortality. Her brief life embodied the autumnal paradox of beauty and decay, the melancholy tones of her music expressing both the hopeless defiance of time’s passing and the grim acceptance of life’s brevity.
Sandy herself was not entirely comfortable with her natural lean towards melancholy songs, as expressed in an interview with Melody Maker less than a year before she died:
Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know. I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own. It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?
Her most desperate attempt to break out of the mold was Rendezvous, her fourth and final solo effort, retrospectively described by Brett Hartenbach of Allmusic as “a flawed attempt at gaining a wider audience, by an artist who deserved better and was capable of the best.” Rolling Stone noted that “casting her as a pop singer didn’t quite work on Rendezvous,” an unusually polite and rare example of understatement from that publication. The most revealing song on the album is the closer, “No More Sad Refrains,” a song that confirms the feelings expressed in the interview and would later be used by Clifton Heylin as the title of his Sandy Denny biography.
Sandy’s excuse that she couldn’t play fast enough to write anything but dirges falls into the category of utter nonsense. The sad songs came out because she was disappointed with life and unreasonably disappointed in herself. Heylin’s biography describes a woman who gradually fell apart because she avoided dealing with the causes of what would probably be diagnosed as some form of depression. Too much drink and too much drama combined with an intense desire for mass-market recognition were symptoms of a deeper emptiness, one that would tragically lead to her too-early demise.
It’s hard to get my head around her sense of failure, of disappointment, of not being good enough. Sandy Denny was the central figure in what is considered one of the greatest folk albums ever made: Fairpoint Convention’s Liege and Lief. Readers voted her in as Best Female Singer in two annual Melody Maker polls. Her songwriting skills were first-rate; “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by such disparate talents as Judy Collins and Nina Simone. And in Sandy, she created a work of surprising sonic diversity supported by outstanding musicianship. But instead of taking justifiable pride in the artistic quality of the album, she was disappointed that Sandy failed to bring her superstardom.
I can’t accept that disappointment, that judgment. “You can try the best you can, try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” Thom Yorke wrote, quoting his life partner’s advice for escaping the black hole of self-doubt. I have neither the skills nor desire to psychoanalyze Sandy Denny; all I want to do right now is to recognize a genuine musical achievement.
Appropriately, Sandy begins with a song about time and mortality. Without naming it, she uses the metaphor of the river of time, describing it as “the cruel flow” that eventually clutches all of us in the grip of death. Why me? Why now? Though the answer is unknowable, the human mind has to come up with a reason, a cause, an explanation of some kind of orderly process:
Oh, it’s like a storm at sea
And everything is lost,
And the fretful sailors calling out their woes,
As to the waves they’re tossed.
Oh, they are all gentlemen,
And never will they know
If there is a reason each of them must go,
To join the cruel flow.
And it’ll take a long, long time . . .
Though the song is cast in a tempo usually more suited to closing numbers, the music generates sufficient power to grab and hold the listener’s attention. Sandy approaches the vocal deliberately, easing up on the first two lines of the verses before raising her voice to the level of power that she displayed so memorably on songs like “Matty Groves” and “The Deserter.” She enhances her lead vocal with her own background vocals, her voice veiled in deep echo as if she is playing the part of the angel of death. Graciously, she donates most of the recording space to the work of two outstanding guitarists: Richard Thompson on both acoustic and electric and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. The dual guitar solo in the middle section where Kleinow riffs to the verses while Thompson takes the chorus is one of the most beautiful guitar passages I’ve ever heard, a masterpiece of collaboration between true craftsmen. Both gentlemen appear on several tracks, but its Kleinow who heralds the expansion of Sandy’s playing field with his American country music stylings.
Sandy’s depth in British folk allowed her to write credible traditional songs that reflect the form and language of tunes in the Child Ballads anthology. “Sweet Rosemary” is a simple, straightforward song about a girl gathering flowers as she imagines finding her true love and eventual wedding day. The remastered version of the album includes the demo version featuring Sandy accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and though I appreciate the more demanding vocal variations, the contributions of ex-bandmate Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and the surprising autoharp sweeps of the full studio take, there’s something terribly charming about the less-complicated version with the pretty melody front and center. At the core, a folk song should always sound perfectly fine with a single voice and a single instrument, and “Sweet Rosemary” certainly fits the bill.
Next up is the even more elaborate “For Nobody to Hear,” a story in itself. I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off in the primitive pre-Internet era, but former Fairport and Fotheringay mate, future husband and producer Trevor Lucas figured out a way to integrate Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the master recording safely locked away in Chelsea. I sincerely hope it involved airmail. Today a producer can upload the base arrangement to a secure site, then the musician can download it, add his bits and then producer the can upload the allegedly new-and-improved master. BO-ring! I love stories of people overcoming impossible odds to get things done, and the ’60s and ’70s are full of them. Did you ever see the Apollo 11 moon lander at The Smithsonian? Shit, man, it’s just some low-end Barcaloungers and a teeny weeny computer with 1/1000000 of the power of an iPhone wrapped in aluminum foil! And it went all the way to the fucking moon! I’m becoming more and convinced that digitalization and the now-now-now ethic have destroyed human ingenuity by making things too easy for us. Fuck Amazon! Bring back parcel post! Fuck the iPhone! Bring back phone booths! Do you really need everything RIGHT NOW?
However Lucas pulled it off, his efforts went for naught. The mix on this song is dreadful, with horns, drums and guitar drowning out the singer. I don’t know if they were intimate at the time, but if they were, I’ll bet Sandy gave him an earful when he got home. The lyrics also drift into self-pity (“But it made me for to write no songs/For nobody to hear”), and even a stripped-down version wouldn’t qualify as one of Sandy’s better efforts.
Fortunately, “For Nobody to Hear” is the only turkey on the album. Sandy bounces back pretty quickly with her version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a song that had already been covered by Elvis, Judy Collins and Rod Stewart. Sandy makes the song her own with her nuanced vocal alternating between tones of reflection and heartfelt passion, riding the comfy tempo with confidence. Sneaky Pete returns with sweet and lovely work on the pedal steel guitar, coaxing the challenging instrument to produce clear, rising tones that seem to drift on air. Sandy’s selection of Linda Thompson to take the role of harmonic support was definitely an inspired choice, as their voices blend especially well, most notably in the rising crescendo on the closing lines.
Sandy takes it to another level entirely with Richard Farina’s adaptation of the traditional song “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The first two verses describe a natural world in perfect harmony (gentle tides, colours blending beautifully in the sand, the thunder of mare and stallion, the blended flower), while the last verse alludes to the destructive tendencies of man and how they wreak havoc on natural harmony:
But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.
This is the poetic version of the evolutionary history described in Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where man’s evolution is linked to the blind destruction of thousands of species, flora and fauna alike (the book has many flaws in addition to being positively depressing, but the self-destructive tendencies of our species has been well-documented). What makes Sandy’s interpretation of the story more credible and aesthetically pleasing is the power of her voice, a capella. Singing a capella is always a risky proposition, but when it’s done well, there are few musical forms that command one’s attention so thoroughly. The opening verse is captivating enough, but when Sandy adds three-part harmony (in her own voice) in the second verse, the effect is absolutely stunning—and in the last verse, when she adds a fourth part at the top of her range, the chills run up and down my spine. That fourth voice is not a decorative element, but a voice that expresses infinite sadness, a voice dying in the wilderness. The song could have ended there, but Sandy brought in Dave Swarbrick for the finishing touch: a sensitive violin elegy that expresses mourning more powerfully than words possibly could. This part always makes me tear up, as Swarbrick brings out the feeling of loss through a perfectly executed solo focused on the lower strings of the violin. The backstory is Sandy and Swarbrick didn’t get along all that well, but here they put their differences aside to create a great moment in music.
“Listen, Listen” has become one of Sandy’s signature songs, the title of a solid introductory compilation released at the dawn of the millennium. The strength of the song is its stirring melody, further powered by Sandy’s confident, free-spirited approach. She also handles the foundational 12-string guitar and receives more than enough support from Richard Thompson on mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on the drums. I could have done without the string section, an unnecessary appendage to a song with strong bones. The lyrics are on the awkward side and the storyline (such as it is) eludes my ability to make sense of it all, but the melody and strength of the performances carry the day. There is a French version available on the remastered release (“Écoute, Écoute”) that works if you’re not too bothered by less-than-stellar articulation.
“The Lady” catches the listener’s attention from the get-go with a dissonant E flat augmented chord, inverted to place the G note at the base to make the transition to the main melody less jarring on the ears. Again, I would have dispensed with Harry Robertson’s strings (or turned them down to half-volume), as I think the song would have had much more impact with just piano and Sandy’s exceptionally strong, passionate vocal. Given the heartfelt intensity she displayed, we can assume that the lady in question is Sandy herself, and the picture formed by the lyrics describes a woman who struggles with the feeling of not being good enough (“The lady she had a silver tongue/For to sing she said/And maybe that’s all”), yearns for a moment when the audience is struck dumb by the sound of her voice (“Wait for the dawn and we will have that song/When it ends it will seem/That we hear silence fall”), loves well but probably not too wisely (“The lady she had a golden heart/For to love, she said/And she did not lie”) but still clings to the dream of breaking through cold indifference to transform the world with her music:
We heard that song while watching the skies,
Oh the sound it rang
So clear through the cold.
Then silence fell and the sun did arise
On a beautiful morning of silver and gold.
Those are pretty heavy expectations to carry in a world where people are always looking for the shiny new thing.
Mainly Norfolk, the invaluable source of all things English folk, accurately describes Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Bushes and Briars” as an “obligato,” a musical term used to describe “an instrumental part, typically distinctive in effect, which is integral to a piece of music and should not be omitted in performance.” Imagine “Aqualung” without Martin Barre’s guitar or “Comfortably Numb” without Gilmour’s fabulous solo, and you’ll get an idea of the indispensability of Richard Thompson’s contribution here. While he’s probably not the first name that pops into your head when you think of country gee-tar pickers, Richard channeled enough Sneaky Pete to master the essence of the style while adding his own distinctive mark to the piece. His slides, bends, vibrato, arpeggios are as clean as a crystal stream. Meanwhile, Sandy holds up her end of the bargain with an exceptional performance that spans the mood spectrum from wistfulness to righteousness as she strolls through a bleak winter landscape to arrive at a church, empty save for the “clergy’s chosen man” and the graves of past parishioners:
I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.
It should be noted that “Bushes and Briars” is not the song classified as Roud 1027, but a Sandy Denny original.
As is “It Suits Me Well,” a tale about the perpetual wanderer—the gypsy, the sailor, the circus trouper. The attraction is in the freedom, to be able to say “There are no chains about me, I am me own man,” to “stand upon the salty deck and feel the wind blow.” Sandy wrote the song in the old vernacular, a proper choice for a lifestyle that seems to be dying, replaced by a new class of itinerants who have no choice in the matter—the refugees, the homeless forced to live in cars or makeshift shelters. The characters in the song “never had a proper home . . . never had a garden or a place with windows,” finding those trappings to be unbearable attachments that interfere with personal liberty. “The living it is hard, but oh, it suits me well,” they sing, prioritizing validation of the spirit above creature comforts. Though none of the lifestyles described in the song would suit me, I understand the yearning for a life without compromise. Sandy gives us another strong vocal performance, channeling the moods and motivations of the characters to perfection, conservatively limiting her use of portamento to give the vocal gymnastics more prominence. The band of Thompson, Donaldson, Donald, Lucas (on acoustic guitar), John Kirkpatrick (concertina) and an uncredited harmonica stylist fashion a comparatively understated background that highlights Sandy’s vocal (as it should) and echoes the ambivalence of freedom won at such a steep price. One of the strongest compositions on the album, “It Suits Me Well” evokes latent feelings of resistance to conformity that might help listeners survive another day of wage slavery and activate their inner gypsies.
The original album closes with the achingly beautiful “The Music Weaver.” The third time turns out to be the charm for Harry Robertson, whose string arrangement is both rich and thoughtfully restrained, allowing plenty of room for Sandy’s flawless vocal and simple piano patterns. In tone and lyric, this is the most honest song on the album, where Sandy drops her tendency to communicate in passive-aggressive hints in exchange for honest, mask-off communication. In the first verse, she calls herself out for communicating in half-truths:
I’m a long way from you,
I’m a long way from home.
And who cares for the feeling
Of being alone?
The notes and the words
They will always unfold
And I’m left with a manuscript
That will grow old
And the secrets all told anyway.
After a lovely instrumental passage, Sandy shares her closing thoughts with her faraway partner, thoughts that reflect the desire for symbiosis but close with an escape route. Though life for a musician on the road is far more comfortable than the experience of a hobo riding the rails, Sandy feels a bond with those roamers, suggesting that the music they weave embodies the same melancholy displayed in her work.
The remastered version also features two tracks from a single released in support of an obscure, short film called Pass of Arms about two knights pointlessly battling to the death in a forest. While that description may bring up memories of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, these Don Fraser compositions are both powerful anti-war songs that Sandy delivers to perfection. “Here In Silence” is the stronger of the two, with an arrangement that integrates oboe, piccolo and bugle in the style of Joshua Rifkin’s ear-catching arrangements on Judy Collins’ In My Life album. The most powerful verse in terms of lyrical content and Sandy’s delivery highlights the inexplicable justification for waging war in the name of the Prince of Peace:
Take my children, golden children
Grow them, train them, cut them, kill them
For the justice of your Jesus
For the service of your leaders
Can you feel me, can you touch me
Can you leave me here in silence?
“Man of Iron” features another strong arrangement but the dominant imagery of knights in armor brings up too many images of John Cleese’s armored body shrinking limb-by-limb for me to embrace the song, though I do admire Sandy’s performance.
Both songs were recorded around the time of Sandy, serving as potent evidence that this was the period when Sandy Denny peaked as a solo artist. Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz gave us Sandy’s first attempt to expand her listening audience by introducing jazz and pop influence (an attempt that failed to chart); the aforementioned Rendezvous left her fan base puzzled as to why she refused to play to her strengths. While she expanded her stylistic range on Sandy, the connections between British and American folk are well-established; jumping from British folk to jazz is another thing entirely. Given the evidence of an increasingly fragile psyche, Sandy Denny was not only asking too much of the listening audience but too much of herself.
I wish she were still alive today, for even had she given up music for another calling, a mature version of Sandy Denny would look back and chalk up the mistakes to experience and take justifiable pride in the beauty she created.