On last night’s episode of Young Americans on the WB, two blonde young people discussed their troubled relationship. One of them was under a truck doing some unspecified repairs with a large wrench at the time — the girl, I think. When she came up from under her vintage Ford pick-up, tastefully grease-smudged, the two of them went off hand in hand, having repaired their love at the very same moment as their truck. I didn’t notice what they said — I was making a sandwich — but I did notice the soundtrack: “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake. The song is so pretty I actually found those two out-of context minutes from a teen drama I’d never seen before kind of touching. “Pink Moon” has that kind of power.
So Nick Drake is great and he’s everywhere. What about the other seminal figures from the late sixties/early seventies British Folk movement? Richard Thompson, for one, has always maintained a substantial cult following. His rough-hewn vocals and virtuoso guitar playing make him more of a rock and roller and thus more accessible than his peers. Nowadays he does tours like the ones Lou Reed does: the two of them (never together, as far as I know) lumbering the country, playing posh theaters with high-ticket prices, releasing albums that sell to the same people over and over again.
Which leaves Sandy Denny — the third great artist from the British Folk movement and still the most under-appreciated. Like Nick Drake she died young and in her prime. There are no tours or new albums to remind us of her achievements.
Nick Drake to the rescue.
Drake mania has revived interest in the British Folk scene in general and Sandy Denny in particular. Unfortunately, unlike the solitary Drake, Denny was a sociable creature whose singing and songwriting are spread over too many records for anyone but a serious fan to get a handle on. She has been anthologized in single CD greatest hits packages before, but the too-short and thin-sounding discs didn’t do justice to her long and varied career or her beautiful singing voice. The new two-CD anthology, No More Sad Refrains, from A&M is more like it. This is the kind of attention to back catalog that record companies owe their customers but often fail to provide. Everything has been carefully re-mastered to sound good on compact disc and the expanded storage capability of the medium has been put to good effect. Both of the CDs are over 70 minutes long and an informative booklet with an essay by Denny biographer Clinton Heylin is included. Lyric sheets would have been nice, but why quibble?
With all my Nick Drake talk, it’s only fair to point out to people who haven’t heard Sandy Denny that she doesn’t sound much like Nick Drake. She’s wistful, too; and her songs are superficially similar to Drake’s. But while Nick Drake is an introspective and almost unbearably intimate performer, Denny is every bit an entertainer. Like Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny throws her words out to the crowd. Even over drum fills and guitar solos, her voice is always the focus, as much as if she was busking with a guitar on a street corner.
It’s not hard to see why. Throughout her career Denny’s extraordinary control and style as a singer won her entry into bands of her choosing. Her most famous work was with the band that defined the British Folk sound, Fairport Convention. Denny sang with them on three records, left to form Fotheringay with her then-boyfriend, Trevor Lucas, and joined Fairport again. Her songwriting was respectable but it was her singing voice that made her special. She could sing with or without vibrato, softly or with operatic power. Covers of the Everly Brothers (“When Will I Be Loved”) and Buddy Holly (“Learning the Game”) suggest that she could have been a great country singer, as well. Her unadorned, pure tone calls to mind Emmylou Harris as well as Joni Mitchell. You may have heard her before without even knowing it. That’s Sandy Denny singing with Robert Plant on “Battle of Evermore.”
No More Sad Refrains is a necessarily limited sample of Denny’s career. Because it focuses on Denny’s songwriting as much as her singing, it is skewed to her solo work where she had more freedom to do her own material. This approach sacrifices variety in favor of capturing Denny as an artist more completely. It’s a trade-off, but not an unwise one. Her time with Fairport Convention is well represented and, as is appropriate, Richard Thompson is the second most prevalent songwriter on No More Sad Refrains, after Denny herself.
Being a Nick Drake and/or Richard Thompson fan does not mean you’ll enjoy Sandy Denny — though you probably will. But listening to Sandy Denny will certainly deepen your enjoyment of Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. More so then any other artist, Sandy Denny embodied the entirety of the British Folk movement and all its influences, from Celtic and American Folk to Hippy Rock. She was an oversized presence in a narrow genre. Whether or not she would have gone on to bigger things is a question that won’t be answered. She died on April 17, 1978 after falling down a flight of stairs and slipping into a coma from which she would never wake up. At least finally her memory is growing to match her legacy.