With new music from Laura Marling, Florence + The Machine and Joanna Newsom to be released over the next few months, the influence of the first lady of British folk rock, the indomitable Sandy Denny, will be heard throughout 2015.
Had she not sadly passed away at the age of 31, today, January 6, would have been this very British singer’s 68th birthday. Yet for all the continued chatter about her contemporary, the late Nick Drake, Sandy’s name gets lost in the mix. We forget that Denny invented the female folk rock blueprint, weaving together the purity of revivalist vocalists Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins with the passion of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.
Echoes of her unique sound can be heard in 21st century music from Florence Welch’s majestic mysticism to Laura Marling’s no-bullshit balladry. “Aesthetically, her songs are really inspiring to me – they’re really bold strokes that feel sort of theatrical and they’re interested in story,” said Newsom in 2012, one of many artists who’ve name-checked her significance on their work. Ineffably modern, Denny’s style was gutsier than her contemporaries. While Joni Mitchell was whispering into the wind in Laurel Canyon and Vashti Bunyan painting daisies onto her gypsy caravan, Sandy was sat in a South London pub, hollering out traditional folk songs over a brimming tankard of ale.
Hard-drinking and hard-living, Sandy’s belter of a voice was rooted in beer and bolshiness, but could be tender as well as tough. First Aid Kit and Cat Power – who covered Sandy’s most well known song, the melancholy ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ which you can hear below – have also taken up the baton when it comes to mixing that powerful strength with fragility.
Like many musicians of her time, Sandy Denny attended art college – in Kingston, London – and through that became involved in the burgeoning folk club scene of the mid-1960s. Starting out solo before collaborating with her then-partner, cult acoustic singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank, she spent a short time singing with The Strawbs, before joining the ranks of Fairport Convention. A member during the folk group’s most prolific period, she bolstered their seminal 1969 album ‘Liege and Lief’ with an unmistakable, forthright vocal on ‘Matty Groves’. She stayed with the band for a little over a year, then forming her own group Fotheringay, releasing one album before going solo again.
Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention
In the early 1970s she crafted three highly accomplished albums, ‘The North Star Grassman and The Ravens’ – the title track was covered by Joanna Newsom, listen below – ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ and ‘Sandy’. In the same period she also joined Robert Plant to sing on Led Zeppelin’s fantastical ‘The Battle of Evermore’, cementing her iconic status. Briefly rejoining Fairport, she was a driving force behind their glossy ‘Rising For The Moon’ LP in 1975. Her final solo album ‘Rendezvous’ came in 1977, during a time where she was blighted by alcohol and cocaine addiction. A year later she died – the result of a brain haemorrhage a few weeks after falling down a flight of stairs. It was a tragic end to a life as vivid as the albums she helped to create.
With a new biography about the singer due for release later this year – Mick Houghton’s ‘I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn’ – and constant reminders of her distinctive style in the music of the new generation, Sandy Denny’s magnificent contribution to Britain’s musical tradition will live for a long time to come.
10 Essential Sandy Denny Songs