A hush often falls on conversation when the name, Sandy Denny, arises, usually accompanied by sighs and a gentle shaking of the head. The initial pain at her passing over thirty years ago has eased but many of her admirers still experience a deep sense of loss.
What is it about Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny? And why does she touch us still? I really don’t know, but even as I write this I’m filled with a sense of gentle melancholia. It definitely had something to do with her voice. Even as a very young woman, that instrument ached with experience.
How could she have written a masterpiece like “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as a teenager? And to compound matters, it was rumored to be her first composition. During an interview with Richard Thompson for Celtic Crush, I asked him if this was true. He replied that to the best of his knowledge it was and, at any rate, she’d had the song when he first met her.
Fairport Convention are merely a footnote now in rock history but there was a time in the late 6o’s/early 70’s when their influence was huge and their star shone brightly. There wasn’t a woman singer at the time that didn’t look up to Ms. Denny. Sandy, herself, was racked by insecurity. She longed for mainstream success but was unsure about, among other things, her appearance. Add to that a harsh shyness and an uncertainty about celebrity.
Despite these doubts she was an electric performer who devoured light. When she was onstage it was hard to take your eyes off her, notwithstanding the fact that she was always accompanied by stellar and equally charismatic musicians the like of Richard Thompson and her husband, Trevor Lucas. I guess it was her intensity. The song was everything to her and she effortlessly channeled the times, along with the ghosts of the people she sang about.
Take a listen to Banks of the Nile with her band Fotheringay. I still delight in the perfection of the song’s arrangement; and then that voice – laying bare the story of a girl who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in England’s army fighting Napoleon in Egypt.
Or lose yourself in the longing and regret of No End where she mourns for the idealism of an artist she loved and admired. Now that he’s forsaken his craft – and her – what’s left? Well, actually, a lot, in particular that ineffable feeling we’ve all experienced at being let down but were never quite able to put into words.
Sandy died from a brain hemorrhage after a fall down a stairs in 1978. At the end of our interview, I asked Richard Thompson to describe Sandy. After praising her originality, voice and craft, he halted for a moment then continued in his very understated English manner, “she was a woman of considerable appetites.”
Lucky for us, I suppose, for her songs, though delicate, throb with life, loss and pain. She was the best and we’re lucky to have been touched by her considerable talents, spirit and soul.