In A Lonely Moment

by Clive James

from "Let It Rock", UK, March 1974, as reprinted in Fiddlestix, the
Australian Fairport Convention fanzine, Issue 38, Spring 1995

Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, you are charged that in the years between 1968 and 1974 you did, whether wilfully or out of plain carelessness, content yourself with merely becoming a British rock queen, instead of nurturing a world-class songwriting talent into the revolutionary force it once bade fair to be. How do you sing to that?

Sandy Denny at Fairport Convention sound check, Indiana State Univ., Bloomington IN, 18 Oct 74
Neil Sharrow

Well, we know how Sandy Denny sings. Joining Fairport Convention for their exquisite second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, she introduced a rock vocal style that kept power in reserve while energising the melody with precisely focused dynamics. The Denny singing characteristics were put on display all at once, as if no period of development were needed. Notes were hit dead centre with a white-hot needle and held while they burned and faded. It was an open space, low-volume, high-intensity vocal style that left room in its interstices for the Witchseason/Island constellation's spellbinding electro-folk sound to develop into a new rock idiom — the idiom in which, among others, the earlier and later Fairports, Fotheringay, and Steeleye Span have at one time or another all operated.

If that special rock idiom now shows signs of regressing, of once again becoming solely a folk style — if, that is, Steeleye Span now look like becoming its true heirs and exemplars — the reason can be sought in the material on which the idiom attempted to build. With the important exception of Richard Thompson, the one person within the style capable of writing a contemporary language was Sandy Denny. And her gift for writing such a language was the very gift which she decided — for one reason or another — not to exploit.

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs — wise to be grateful for that, and wise to accept her later reliance on the well-worked folk vocabulary as inevitable. On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song "Fotheringay" gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

       The evening hour is fading
       Within the dwindling sun
       And in a lonely moment
       Those embers will be gone
       And the last
       Of all the young birds flown.

Already she was singing with an effortless legato line reminiscent of the famous story about Elizabeth Schumann at the height of her lieder-singing powers: it's said that Schumann could sing full force into a candle flame without making it so much as waver. Such lavish delicacy of sound, however, tends to deafen us to the quality of the world/music combination itself, which would be interesting even if Bruce Forsyth sang it. Words like "dwindling" and "moment" are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — "And the last/Of all the young birds flown" — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary. It was a path along which British rock sorely needed to advance, for there was no escaping from the fact that our most creative rock bands were hampered in their songwriting by lyricists who rarely know the difference between the subjective and objective case. If we were to add a literate element to our store of written material — something comparable to the college-educated rock-writing tradition which in America had airily come up with John Sebastian and Randy Newman — then this was the kind of attention to detail that needed desperately to be encouraged.

On Unhalfbricking (1969) Sandy Denny finally recorded her own version of the song airily made well-known by Judy Collins. One of the two or three dozen crucial songs in rock, "Who Knows Were The Time Goes" showed the full power — for the one and only time — of the gift its author so unselfconsciously possessed.

       Across the evening sky
       All the birds are leaving
       But how can they know
       It's time for them to go...

Those terminal vowel sounds (sustained unaltering in the first stanza, intensified and withdrawn in the second, and so on through as many variations as required) were placed at the ideal points for her voice, yet were by no means the most important musical features of a given line. Just as important were the packed consonants, as in

       Sad deserted shore
       Your fickle friends are leaving...

It's a strophic song, but short enough — and with enough minor variety from stanza to stanza — not to be in danger from predictability. And here, for once, the loose structure made sense: two stanzas about the birds leaving, and a third about a loved one being away, with no logical connection between the first two and the third, but an emotional unity that needed no interlining. The diction was open to arbitrariness (Collins sang "morning" instead of "evening" and it was hard to see that the difference mattered) but in this case the neutrality of vocabulary helped the song seem timeless by draining it of context — it was just camped elegantly in the void. A superb song, with a forward flow that the Fairport musicians decorated with fastidiously schooled guitar-lines and copybook stick-work on the rim of the snare.

But it's hard to quell the sneaking suspicion that even this outstanding song would have had more in it if the singer's voice had not been so capable of filling the gaps. On the same album, "Autopsy" shows Denny's capacity for melisma taking control of her talent for the lyric and weakening it seriously.

       You must philosophise
       But why must you bore me to tears?

These are the first two lines of the song, and "philosophise" is the first word you can hear — the previous two are swallowed, and one picks them up in a repetition later on. Most of her attention seems to be spent on the long, virtuoso melismatic surge with which she delivers the long "i" in "philosophise", and in general the linguistic points of the song are undistinguished going on feeble, most notably in the distressing transitional pun from "in tears" to "into years". (If I have mis-heard this last effect, it's because the singer hasn't striven to make it clear.) The song is sung in a continuous blur of vowels: abstract prettiness is the enemy and already rearing its gorgeous empty head.

Liege & Lief, her last album with Fairport Convention, was avowedly a folk-orientated effort: carefully edited texts from ye olde Englishe heritage. Here, had she but known it, was a straight message from the Muse: the text of "Tam Lin" should have told her that the language of the past is too alive to be copied, and can only be competed with by the language of the present. As it happened, she went on to attempt a contemporary folk language composed mainly of archaisms, and so was unable either to extend the resources of the modern song or add to the heritage of the ancient one — which was composed, in its time, not out of scholarship but out of the language of the day. Swarbrick's excellent edition of "Tam Lin" (there are dozens of versions, but his is of exactly the right length and dramatic structure) has the continuous linguistic interest by which a strophic song can gain from its repetitive form, and inversions like "as fast as go can she" fall with a naturalness that no modern writer can possibly match. She sang the song with dazzling attack, as alive to its theatrical force as she was deaf to its lesson.

On Fotheringay (1970) her voice has begun, in good earnest, to do its own writing, and the writing has begun the destructive process of turning into a mere pretext for exercising the pipes. "The Sea" and "Winter Winds" are two of her loveliest melodies, however, and eminently listenable even when one has abandoned all attempts to find the lyric substantial. "Don't you know I am a joker/A deceiver?" she sings in "The Sea" and it's a burst of recognisable modern English that is to become all too rare. In "Winter Winds" her leading tricks of syntax are well established.

       Winter winds, they do blow cold
       The time of year, it is chosen...

These folksy constructions were to become a besetting vice. Nor is the song's structure anything better than slapdash, submetaphysical arguments being advanced as if self-demonstrating. "He who sleeps, he does not see/The coming of the seasons/Fulfilling of a dream/Without a time to reason." The song didn't care about clarifying itself along its length, and on the other hand couldn't be called fruitfully complex: it was a bung-it-down lyric, naked and unashamed. Also becoming apparent — a disease soon to be rampant — was her reliance on a very restricted range of props. Sea-captains, birds, lonely shores: these were her belated contribution to a folk kitty already bulging with witches, blacksmiths, gibbets and butter-churns. But the awkward truth is that to separate yourself from contemporary life is no guarantee of achieving timelessness.

The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971) was a solo album in the strict sense, with Sandy Denny's name and image dominating the cover. Witchseason Productions had given way to Warlock Music, and the fairy princess was to be seen busy among her herbs and simples. To my ear, the music which had always seemed limited to a certain kit of intervals has by now become familiar to the point of monotony, and the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. "The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk" she sings in "Late November", and in (guess what) "The Sea Captain" we hear her declare: "From the shore I did fly/... the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm" etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener's patience, it is exhausted.

"Next Time Around" convincingly demonstrates that a strophic form can't be sustained even by the most scrupulous singing unless either (a) the argument advances, or (b) the imagery varies. And her imagery — in the title track, to take one especially disabling example — is by this stage all too predictable. Birds and sea show up in every song. Only two songs show signs of originality: "Next Time Around", which is spoiled by its "the winter it is long" constructions beyond the ability of the tactful Harry Robinson strings to save it, and "John The Gun", which has at least one fine throwback to her early style.

       ... so I will teach your sons
       And if they should die before the evening
       Of their span of days
       Why then they will die young.

"Span of days" — that really is timeless language, the very sort of ordinary/extraordinary speech she should always have been plucking out of the air, instead of drowsily half-recalling all that daft chat about sea captains.

Sandy Denny album cover

Benefit of the doubt must be given to Sandy (1972), in which she is clearly resting on her laurels. "It'll Take A Long Time" has its full complement of sailors, storms and sea, with a chorus which owes its sentiment to Crosby, Stills and Nash. "There is no need for rules/There's no-one to score the game" she sings — a non-writer's idea of profundity which would be understandable coming from one of our more notorious fake lyricists but is merely incongruous coming from her. Some lines in "The Lady" could easily provide this article with an ending:

       The lady she had a silver tongue
       For to sing she said
       And maybe that's all

But the conclusions I prefer to reach are very different. First of all, her upcoming album (which at the time of writing I have had no opportunity to hear) might do the unexpected and show her embarked on a different course. Second, she is more than just a singer. In a far more interesting sense than rock stars like Carole King or Carly Simon, she is a songwriter — her gift for language is unmistakable. That so marked a gift can become a casualty seems to me a fundamental problem. Is it just that the rock audience can't tell chalk from cheese, and so discourages those who can from going on caring about the difference? Or is it that the beautiful singer, lacking limitations, is turned aside from art by having no obstacles to overcome?

Sandy Denny is a pleasant representative of the most pleasant scene in British rock — the well-bred, well brushed, clean-edged and gently lyrical constellation of electro-folk. Violins and guitars and Maddy Prior step-dancing: it's a world of its own, an acquisition, one of the undeniably good things to have happened in British music. In a very British triumph of continuity, pop has been joined to the past. But Sandy Denny could have done, and might still do, that dangerous something extra, taking the full resources of contemporary speech and turning them into song.

Our source is third-hand, Turkish fan Levent Varlik's website quoting his own post to the Sandy Denny mailing list, in turn quoting Fiddlestix quoting Let It Rock. Where obvious, I've corrected errors in spelling, punctuation and lyric transcription. Thanks to Pete Atkin (owner of a full bound set of Let It Rock) for helping correct the not-so-obvious ones.

Thanks to Kevin Cryan for spotting this on the Web.

Levent Varlik notes that the first recorded version of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" appears on the album All Our Own Work by Sandy Denny & The Strawbs, in which Sandy sings the variation "Across the purple sky..."

Maartin Allcock has published a lead-sheet songbook of all Sandy's own songs.

Also recommended: Philip Ward's scholarly article on Sandy Denny and her songs, which benefits from knowledge of her later material.

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