Monday, December 19, 2011

For Sandy Denny (and Lester Bangs)

This is a piece I wrote in 1988. I wished that Lester Bangs had written an obituary for Sandy Denny so I decided to try and write one myself. Revised slightly in 2000.


For Sandy Denny

What’d she have to go and die for? This woman, this heartbreaker. Wasn’t it enough that she could make me weep over songs that were moribund 100 years before I was born? Anyone else falls down a flight of stairs and they maybe bruise their hip or sprain their ankle. Not Sandy Denny, oh no, she had to have a cerebral haemorrhage and die. God, what a waste. What a stupid, senseless, criminal waste. Maybe she’d done all her best stuff anyway, and was doing us all a favour. That’s harsh. So what? Aren’t we always callous? What do we care if we make the parents cry and the friends spit blood? But in this case it’s inappropriate. Harshness in this discussion would only indicate a profound misunderstanding of Sandy Denny’s life and art. What matters is that she breathed life into a dead culture: with the purity of her voice and the sincerity and warmth of her spirit she brought eyesight to the blind, caused the lame to walk, the dumb to talk. Suddenly all those poor dead soldiers, those star-crossed lovers, those cruel sea captains, wicked goblins, calculating witches – all those forgotten ciphers of the long dead, pagan, oral culture of these islands found a voice, true and penetrating. Tam Lyn stirred in his yew tree, poor Nancy wailed for her lover – slaughtered on the banks of the Nile, Lord Donald fulfilled his murderous wrath at his faithless wife and the hapless Matty Groves; they and their companions in our ancient folklore lived again, to inform and amuse and distress a generation they would scarcely have believed possible.

She didn’t just sing folk songs, in fact, her own songs and the songs of her contemporaries far outnumber the traditional elements in her catalogue. But I would always be scanning the label for a Trad.Arr. Denny, or better still, a Trad. Arr. Fairport, because it was her work with Fairport Convention that will be treasured as long as there are people with, as Jimi Hendrix put it, “any kinda hearts and ears”. She joined them in 1968, even though she thought their album was “dreadful”, because she was fed up with trudging round the folk clubs on her own. And there it is on the first track of the first album she made with them, that voice: so calm and serene, so human and accessible. But it’s not just that. That may be the most important thing but there’s also the musicology bit – which does apply. She had an unerring, impeccable knack for phrasing. Tie-ing a note across an irregular number of beats, Sandy always finished what she started with breath and time to spare. She had the very, very rare gift of being able to make time do her bidding. I don’t want to start using words like rallantando and sostenuto because then it gets esoteric and piss-elegant and also, far worse, misses the point. Sandy wasn’t employing the devices of a trained, professional singer, she was singing from the heart and if she held onto a note, it was because the words she was singing were especially important. She had no academic reverence for these songs. No stifling kid-gloves or suffocating archivist awe. She sang them because she liked them, because they told real stories and brought with them messages from dead ages. When Sandy sings on ‘A Sailor’s Life’: “She wrung her hands, and she tore her hair, she was like a young girl in gra-a-a-a-ave despair”, the anguish of the lover precariously perched in a little boat on an endless ocean becomes so real it hurts – and then the centuries melt and one human being’s mortal dread becomes another’s art becomes another’s tears. That was Sandy Denny’s achievement.

She left the Fairports after three albums – their best by far - and put her own Fotheringay band together. This didn’t last long, leaving only one album which contains The Banks of the Nile – possibly her greatest recorded performance. She made a couple of classy but patchy solo albums, rejoined Fairport, left again, made another classy but patchy solo album, and then fell down those fucking stairs. 

Trouble is, I think she was one of those people who don’t realise how gifted they are. Modest, unassuming, diffident, infuriating. The plain fact is that her performances of her own and her contemporaries’ songs weren’t as good as her singing folk. Perhaps it was because the traditional material was not her own that she could approach it so unselfconsciously, with such sublime effortlessness. Whatever, singing her own songs against the big, professional productions on her solo albums she was never so impressive as when she sang folk songs in front of the amiable clutter of the Fairports. Easy to say she turned slick but it wouldn’t be true. Anyone who rushed out to buy the big boxed set when it came out will testify that the giggly, nervous woman who introduces track one – recorded at her last ever gig – was neither slick nor professionally polished in any way.

People are so damned reverent. The compilers of that boxed set were far too close to Sandy the person. Everyone I know who bought it never plays it. Like me, they taped the tracks they wanted and let the box gather dust. The Fairport albums, however, are worn and scratched and dog-eared. The compilers of the box wanted us all to know what a sensitive and brilliant songwriter Sandy was. The message reads that her finest work consisted of obscure lyrics, finely crafted arrangements, tasteful string sections etc etc – but this is chaff compared to one line from The Banks of the Nile or She Moved Through the Fair, or even her devil-may-care roistering versions of Bob Dylan’s Million Dollar Bash or Down in the Flood.

The point is that Sandy Denny is dead but when she was alive she recorded some dozen or so folk songs that are quite timeless and transcendent; representing, as they do, the finest flowering of British folk singing and which, on their release, succeeded in imbuing the musical manifestations of an ancient, indigenous oral tradition with new life, at a time when that tradition had never been closer to extinction.

And now? Sandy’s been dead for a long time now, 22 years and counting, and the folk tradition is pretty much extinct. Now everything has inverted commas around it and how can folk survive that? No. Maybe she was singing those old, old songs for us down here through some kind of divine oversight. An oversight that took 31 years to be noticed and rectified. I can’t imagine why else she didn’t just sprain her ankle.

“So come all ye roving minstrels, and together we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth, and move the rolling tide.”

© 2000 Adam Blake

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