With a new collection of tracks released tomorrow, what better time for Hazel Davis to remind us of the singer’s extraordinary talent and tragic end?
Last week when we were singing along she said 10 words which made my heart break: “Can we go and see Sandy Denny one time soon?”
I had to tell her that she’d died about two years after I was born and that we could see some singers that sounded a bit like her but not her.
She seemed happy enough with my answer until later that night I saw her face crumple and hot tears stream down her face. I asked her what was wrong and she gulped “Sandy. Denny.” Since then, the song has been referred to as Sandy Denny’s Alive Song. Gulp.
But pretty much everything’s gulp about Sandy Denny. Her fondness for the bottle (Keith Moon was, catastrophically, one of her drinking buddies), her self-doubt, substance abuse, abortions, miscarriages and eventual death in 1978 at the ridiculous age of 31, leaving a one-year-old. Yeah, like I said, gulp.
Denny was a folk singer. The folk singer, really. She sang in the Strawbs before joining Fairport Convention, defining their sound and, with it, that of English folk rock as we know it. She was the only guest vocalist to have ever appeared on a Led Zeppelin album (on The Battle of Evermore), she had That Voice and she wrote some of the most beautiful songs ever written (and that’s no exaggeration).
So I’d like you to stop reading this article right now and listen to probably her most famous song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes?.
Right, if you’ve wiped your eyes, we can discuss it. It’s been covered by just about everyone ever, from Eva Cassidy (no) to 10,000 Maniacs (meh), Cat Power (nope) and Barbara Dickson (NO) but you really can’t get much better than Denny’s stripped-down version with the Strawbs on I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn, a new 40-track/2CD set of demos and live recordings.
It’s such a simple song (“Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving / But how can they know it’s time for them to go?”). In Denny’s voice (NOT DICKSON’S), it’s a gut-punching breath-stealer. It’s the song you play in the car on the way home from visiting a friend in hospital who you’re sure you won’t see again; it’s the song you play when you remember your dad will never meet your children. Like I said, it’s my three-year-old’s favourite.
There are more and they just happen have some of the best lyrics of the time, in my opinion (and in fact). The defiant Solo (“There’s a time to be talking / And a time when it’s no use / Right now I think the things you say / Are liable to confuse”; “I’ve always lived in a mansion / On the other side of the moon / I’ve always kept a unicorn / And I never sing out of tune.”).
Old-Fashioned Waltz, though the words are simple, and even a bit corny, in Denny’s voice is the sweetest. And as for I’m A Dreamer (“You make me nervous when I see you / I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you”), from her final album, despite its over-orchestration, is poignant not just for its release date (1977) but for the evident cracks in her voice.
But it lives on. Denny’s voice and spirit lives on in a hundred or more female singers. For someone reportedly plagued with self-doubt, I like to think Sandy would get something from this. I like the idea of her listening to someone like Laura Marling and finally saying to herself, “Cor, I had a hand in that.” Because she did. She really did.
Sandy Denny – I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn (UMC/Island Records) is released on April 22.5914 Views
Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".