Who knows where the time goes?: Sandy Denny, the delicate often unsung queen of British Folk

By on April 24, 2019

Sandy Denny: Under Review — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — takes the viewer through the often unsung queen of British Folk’s remarkable career, transitioning through delicately-plucked acoustic reveries into grandiose orchestrated balladry with occasional touches of psychedelic rock.

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The one hour, fifteen minute-long 2006 documentary, produced by the UK’s Chrome Dreams, features interviews with several of her esteemed colleagues, including musicians Martin Carthy, Gerry Conway, Dave Mattacks, John Renbourn, and Dave Swarbrick.

There’s also observational career assessment from biographer Patrick Humphries, folk journalist Colin Irwin, and Uncut editor Nigel Williamson.

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Sandy Denny: Under Review also features live and studio recordings of many of her classic songs from the BBC’s “Folk Song Cellar” (December 1966); Fairport Convention’s “Time Will Show the Wiser” (on French TV show Baton Rouge” in April 1968); Fotheringay’s “Gypsy Davey” (from the German TV program “Beat-Club” circa late November, 1970); performances from the BBC’s ” “One in Ten: Sandy Denny” (September 1971); and video shot in 1974 at Birmingham University in 1974.

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Sandy Denny was born Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny in London, England, on January 6, 1947.

She had no initial plans while growing up in Wimbledon to become a singer, and even studied nursing for a year before deciding to pursue a career as a folk singer in local pubs.

A performance on the BBC radio broadcast led to a recording contract and the release of several early albums, including one with the Strawbs.

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She would go on to release a dozen or so albums during her eleven year recording career.

Some of those found her fronting the electrified English folk-rock group Fairport Convention (replacing original vocalist Judy Dyble in 1968) or leading her post-Fairport ensemble Fortheringay, who formed in ’69 (they made just one album, breaking up towards the end of 1970).

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Denny also was a sublime artist on her own, recording several solo albums which often featured alumni of her former bands or, towards the end of her career, lush orchestral arrangements.

Much of the focus here is from 1968 until her untimely death in the later 70s, the same period during which she also quite famously sang on Led Zeppelin‘s “The Battle of Evermore,” a track from Led Zeppelin IV, the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist dueting with Robert Plant.

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Much like one of her contemporaries, British folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake — who was feted with at least one in-depth documentary, A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake (2000) — Sandy Denny continues to deserve to have her musical output exposed to new generations who might not yet know about her.

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Denny always was much more beloved in her home country than she was here in America — she was twice voted “Best British Female Singer” by readers of the UK’s music paper Melody Maker in ’71 and ’72, and her fans similarly voted her “Best Female Vocalist” several times in New Music Express polls too — but hopefully more exposure to what she accomplished in her short life will help to correct that.

Read more about Sandy Denny below.

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Sandy Denny (photo by John Harrison, 1967)

In a recently-published article (“Lost and Found: Sandy Denny“), which alerted us to the fact that we’d neglected to tell Night Flight’s readers about Sandy Denny: Under Review, editor/writer Alan Bisbort tells us how Denny once gave American record producer Joe Boyd an album she’d recorded with the Strawbs (Sandy Denny and the Strawbs: All Our Own Work).

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Bisbort writes that Boyd — in his “breezy memoir” White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s — was particularly impressed with Denny’s very first songwriting credit, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (covered by many other artists, including American folk singer Judy Collins).

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Bisbort also tells us how Denny had partnered up with Fairport Convention, another Boyd discovery, writing:

“Together, over the course of three albums, Denny and the Fairports created a British version of the folk-rock that the Byrds had unleashed in America. They mined the rich motherlode of traditional English folk music, while adding the dexterity and power of an ensemble of brilliant rock musicians. The three albums she recorded with Fairport Convention — What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, all released in 1969 — are all now rightfully deemed classics.”

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Unfortunately, Sandy Denny’s increasingly erratic behavior and her excessive drinking and smoking would ultimately begin to show up in her voice, which is one reason those heavy string arrangements were added, in order to compensate for the lack of vocal power.

Much like Nick Drake, she suffered from bouts of depression, and her dramatic mood swings were to also have an impact on her troubled with marriage with Trevor Lucas, with whom she’d formed Fotheringay in 1969 (they married on September 20, 1973).

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Sandy and Trevor at Lucas’s flat on Chipstead Street in London, 1972 (photo by Jon Lyons)

Sandy Denny had planned to move to America after the birth of her daughter Georgia in July 177 to star her career anew.

Then, 41 years ago, in March of 1978, she fell down a flight of stairs at her parents house, and suffered a head injury.

She afterwards may have ingested painkillers which were dangerous if combined with alcohol.

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Sandy Denny went to stay with a friend, Miranda Ward, but tragedy struck again when she was found unconscious at the foot of a staircase in Ward’s home.

She’d lapsed into a coma, never regaining consciousness, and died on April 21, 1978.

Sandy Denny was just 31 years old.

Watch Sandy Denny: Under Review on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.