It’s a first for me to frantically switch back from the sport on 5Live to catch the second half of Richard Digance’s folk presentation on Radio Devon. If, like me, you default to 1026MW you get BBC Jersey which switches without warning to either 5Live or the West Country local stations. Radio Jersey has advanced in light years since its first cringeworthy year of operation but still retains many amateur aspects. But that’s for another day.
I was about to head out at 5pm today (Sunday) when Digance’s regular programme came on. He announced an edition dedicated to Sandy Denny, whereupon I immediately changed my plans, turned up the volume and listened intently. Now I’m not a ‘folkie’, that strange breed of Englishman that delights in traditional songs played in the traditional ways, but I do like a bit of electric folk as performed by Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the like. The two-hour programme paid tribute to Denny who Digance credited with leading the British divergence away from the American-led folk movement in the 60s.
We learnt that Denny was a London girl who was a trainee nurse when she began performing in a duo. Digance is understandably proud of the time when the young Denny accepted a lift home from his brother late one night, via his mother’s kitchen and a bacon roll! The young prodigy was spotted by one Dave Cousins who asked Denny to join a new outfit called The Strawbs; this was well before these guys became popular. We further learned that they were originally known as The Strawberry Hill Boys. The programme included two recording from those early Strawbs sessions in Copenhagen.
Soon enough Denny joined an embryonic Fairport Convention and, probably unwittingly, they started something memorable. Digance played the superb A Sailor’s Life and mercifully left in the extended outro which features the fusion of the band’s instruments at their best. But in the first half of the song Denny’s voice (which I assume was untrained) is displayed at its remarkable and controlled best.
Denny moved on to an outfit called Fotheringay before returning to Fairport and periodically performing solo work. But Digance mentions ‘alcohol and cigarettes’ and indeed legend suggests that the beautiful and enchanting performer led a pretty wild life out of the public eye. Denny’s final public performance (though no one then knew it) was at the Royal Albert Hall on 27th December 1977. Digance played a couple of tracks from that gig (including the lovely Solo which I hadn’t heard before) at which she was accompanied by many of her musician friends. Digance observes that Denny’s voice was, by then, faltering but to me it was as enchanting as ever.
Denny died some months later after a fall and resulting brain haemorrhage. She was 31.
As this blog witnesses I am devoted to the rock-powerful voices of Elkie Brooks, Carol Decker and Stevie Nicks. Sandy Denny was a different kind of singer. I’m a layman in these matters but to me her voice was less powerful and had a limited range. However it was beautiful, strange and perfectly controlled and Denny had every song and every audience in the palm of her hand. We are privileged to have been given so much in so short a life and well done Digance for showcasing it so memorably.