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Impressions of England

Charles Spencer remembers Sandy Denny

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

I’m writing this on the May Day bank holiday, with birds singing outside, probably in terror as the cat Nelson is on the prowl, searching for some luckless fledgling to kill and devour on our doorstep. He will then roll on his back, wave his legs in the air and look cute, expecting to be congratulated on his brutality. Tennyson knew what he was about when he wrote of nature red in tooth and claw.

Serial killing aside, it has been the most beautiful of springs. You’ll probably riposte that it has been mostly wet and cold but that’s my point. The weather seems to have slowed down spring. Most years the season seems to pass in a flash, before you have properly appreciated it. This year it has taken its time. The primroses in the lanes of Dorset lasted for many weeks. Here in suburban Surrey the magnolias weren’t blasted by frost or storms, the apple and cherry blossom are still on the trees, while the bluebells have just reached their almost purple haze of glory.

So, at the start of the merry month of May, with another winter safely behind us, it seems the time to turn to folk music. To be honest, I hadn’t listened to any of my folk records for yonks until I was driving back from Nottingham the other night after the theatre. Dear old Whisperin’ Bob Harris was presenting a tribute to Sandy Denny, the great lead singer with Fairport Convention, who died 30 years ago aged 31.

I still remember the pang of sadness I felt when I first heard of her death. There was an unaffected purity about her voice that made any song she sung seem special, and Liege and Lief, the folk rock album she cut with Fairport in 1969, not only invented folk rock but remains its consummate masterpiece almost 40 years on. As soon as I got home I put it on the CD player and was enchanted all over again, not just by Denny’s voice but also by Richard Thompson’s inspired electric guitar playing and the melodic beauty of the old songs themselves.

Sandy Denny had a voice of such unforced, unadorned beauty, and looked such a lovable hippie chick in photographs, that I always imagined she must have had the sunniest of personalities. In fact, Harris’s excellent documentary told us she was haunted by crippling self-doubt — about her looks, her relationships and even her voice — and at the time of her death she had been abandoned by her husband, Trevor Lucas, who had flown to Australia taking their young daughter Georgia with him. Increasingly desperate, and addled by drink and drugs, she died at the age of 31, after suffering a brain haemorrhage following a fall down a flight of stairs.

Denny has long seemed to me to be one of the most undervalued figures in British popular music. Her crowning achievement is undoubtedly Liege and Lief, but there is stunning work on the earlier Fairport albums What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking, and on some of her later solo albums, though the quality dips as her rackety life began to affect her voice, and she aimed, somewhat desperately, for the commercial success that always eluded her. Denny was a fine songwriter as well as a glorious singer — the haunting ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ is especially fine — and in my view she deserves the posthumous reputation that has accrued to the singer–songwriter Nick Drake since his death.

As well as listening to Denny and Fairport Convention these past weeks, I’ve also discovered that the English folk tradition has recently received an invigorating shot in the arm. The Imagined Village, released at the end of last year, is the most ambitious and engaging reinvention of folk since Liege and Lief.

Spearheaded by Simon Emmerson and featuring such artists as the Copper family from Sussex — who have been singing traditional songs for the past five generations — Martin and Eliza Carthy, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Trans-Global Underground, Sheila Chandra and the folktronica group Tunng, the album marries the English folk tradition to dub, electronica, modern dance rhythms and exotic world music.

The effect is haunting and hypnotic, with Benjamin Zephaniah delivering a brilliant reworking of ‘Tam Lyn’, and John Copper remembering his old grandfather on the wonderfully atmospheric opening track, ‘’Ouses, ’Ouses ’Ouses’. It describes the loss of the countryside his granddad ploughed as a boy, combining traditional folk and modern beats with the sounds of police cars and helicopters.

This is an explicitly English (rather than British) album, and one that tries to connect the England of the past with our complex, multicultural society today. English accents are joined with black and Asian voices, violins combine with the sitar and the synthesiser. All of this might be merely worthy if the tunes weren’t so strong and the performances so full of passion, charm, wit and invention. The Imagined Village, in fact, strikes me as a brilliantly inventive modern classic, recycling old tunes and old stories to create a vivid impression of England past, present and future. For those with adventurous ears, it is a disc I cannot recommend too highly.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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