It is thirty years and a month since Sandy Denny fell down the stairs, suffering a fatal brain haemorrhage and bringing a successful singing career to a tragic close. And thankfully, the media have been running fitting tributes to the singer who truly possessed the voice I, logic permitting, would happily marry.
Born Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny, Sandy began performing her medley of British and American traditional songs and blues at folk clubs in and around London before hooking up with Strawbs. Best known for her work with Fairport Convention, she also recorded an extensive solo catalogue and remains the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin recording.
But the voice… it’s haunting and dark, not instantly likeable. Indeed, when I was a kid and Liege And Lief was on the stereo, my mum reminds me that I used to say “It’d be alright if it wasn’t for the voice.” Gradually, I came to realise how wrong I was.
The passion and vitality for the lyrics and the tale she was telling were apparent in Sandy’s vocals, but she never sounded artificial, strained or affected. Just sincere. Sandy used the ornamentation found in the British folk style, the sudden dips and dives in pitch to mark the end of a phrase, but her voice is unlike any other in the genre, current or past. Indeed, Judy Dyble, the singer who preceded Sandy in Fairport, wished that another singer had been employed after Judy and before Sandy, just to prevent comparisons between the two. It was claims such as this that ensured Melody Maker voted Sandy Best Female Singer in both 1971 and 1972.
She could also fill the shoes of her songs’ characters neatly, and it wouldn’t matter should the protagonist be male – Sandy’s vocals were never achingly feminine. Maybe that was something to do with her penchant for fags and booze. Her renditions of traditional songs – I always cite her version of The Deserter by way of example – have become the template for how they should be approached. Her signature tune, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, is tentatively yet frequently chosen as a cover, but performers know they cannot compete with the original and regularly proclaim so.
Seeing as though the resurgence in interest in Sandy has crossed genres, I hope that Sandy has a posthumous following as healthy and committed as she deserves.
words: Sophie Parkes