Genre: Biography (Music: Folk)
Availability (out of 3): **
Related website(s): http://www.sandydennyofficial.com
My rating: 9/10
I like… Engaging, empathetic, easy to read
I’m less keen on… The sloppy grammar at times
Sandy Denny had an uncanny ability to get right inside even songs penned by others, whether a traditional folk song or a more contemporary one, making it her own and delivering it with a power and an aura that were awesome. In a voice that was natural yet controlled she made the melody soar and tumble. It has the ability to break and mend the heart. Despite frequent listenings, some of her songs still have the ability to make my spine tingle and the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
This is a review of a biography of the late, great, still lamented folk singer and songwriter Sandy Denny:
“No More Sad Refrains” by Clinton Heylin
Voted the world’s best female singer by Melody Maker readers, not once, but twice, British Sandy Denny’s life was cut tragically short at the age of 31 in 1978. Towards the end of her all-too-short career her voice had gone a little past its best, though it was still great.
There had been many occasions when she had suffered from laryngitis but undertaken a live performance anyway, despite medical advice. I saw her live, with Fairport Convention, on one such occasion in (I think) 1974. More significantly and tragically, though, her voice, her career and her very lifespan were cut short by her self-destructive behaviour.
Sandy Denny (Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny) was a British singer who lived from 1947-1978. Over her career she sang songs from a number of genres but is probably best known for her “folk” singing, whether traditional or folky songs from her own pen or those of others.
She recorded and performed with folk-rock band Fairport Convention, and helped them to find their niche with “British” folk-rock instead of playing American material. Some time later she formed her own band, Fotheringay. Latterly she recorded and performed under her own name.
She never became a commercial success, and her attitude to this is difficult to pin down. She seemed to want to get high up the commercial success ladder but without reaching too high. Despite duetting with Robert Plant on “The Battle Of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (she was the only guest vocalist to record with them), her lack of commercial success was due largely to the genres of music that she embraced.
Her own songs were often enigmatic. She was a fairly private person and her songs – and emotions – are often wrapped up in imagery, particularly the sea or the sea shore. Her headstone bears one such enigmatic reference to herself – “The Lady” – from a song of hers of the same title.
It’s an enormous pity that, despite numerous recordings, there is almost no video footage of her. The BBC retain some of the few:
This heading is the title of one of her songs. I can’t help making a plea: if you are remotely interested thus far, or if you are intrigued to hear why she was twice voted the world’s best female singer, please track down and sample a song or two. My own favourites are “Listen, Listen”, “I’m A Dreamer”, “Dark The Night”, the gorgeous “Solo” or the beautifully delivered “At The End Of The Day”.
One song that should be compulsory listening for every lover of vocal music, however, is the stunningly gorgeous and poignant “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” She recorded several versions of this song. Here is one:
There is an “official” website (http://www.sandydennyofficial.com) that is well worth checking out. It contains a biography of Sandy, interviews and reviews, photo galleries and a store.
The book title comes from the title of one of Sandy’s songs and its prologue recounts events in the last weeks of Sandy’s life. A large part of this is drawn from first-hand accounts of friends, including the friend who found her, unconscious. Convincing himself that she was probably not in too bad shape, he spoke softly to her, told her he was making two cups of tea as he awaited the ambulance’s arrival. Sandy never regained consciousness.
The first-hand accounts are aided by the writing style at this point – some clipped, staccato sentences and some use of the present tense – to produce an immediate and urgent feel to the events. The book proper begins much as any other autobiography with an introduction to the lives of her parents and also of her paternal grandmother, who had an affinity for folk singing. It proceeds, of course, with Sandy’s childhood – including her unhappy school days – shared with her brother, David.
Sandy, The Marquee Club, London, 1966
It is divided into two main, self-explanatory sections, each consisting (by coincidence or design) of seven chapters, “Rising With The Moon”, and “The Solo Years”.
On the one hand it is empathetic and warm, not aloof or condemnatory. On the other hand, it doesn’t ignore her mistakes and shortcomings, or put her on a pedestal. Reading it evoked similar feelings: a brilliant and talented young lady who suffered from fears and insecurities, seeking happiness but finding it elusive despite its being within reach, ultimately seeking it in the wrong places that could only lead to disaster if unchecked. Her marriage, the birth of her daughter, seemed to offer so much stability; sadly, they didn’t, and booze and drugs increasingly became her refuge.
Another, more recent biography of Sandy, “I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn” (its title derives from a line in her song “Solo”) is superior in one or two respects, and whilst described on the “official” Sandy Denny website mentioned above as “definitive”, I feel that “No More Sad Refrains” is better overall, however, precisely because of the engaging tone that it adopts and engenders. It also tells me all I wanted to know without giving details in which I can get a little bogged down.
There is another book, “Sandy Denny: Reflections On Her Music” that the website commends highly, but I haven’t read it and can’t make any comparisons.
It is profoundly sad to read at times of the inability of Sandy’s friends to influence her away from her drinking and drug-taking, and to read, too, of her parents’ reaction and feelings towards her marriage partner (fellow musician Trevor Lucas) and later lifestyle. This book takes the view that her mother’s difficulty in accepting her daughter’s problems, and reluctance to seek medical help when Sandy sustained a fall at the family home three weeks before she died may have been a factor in her death. It doesn’t do so in a finger-pointing kind of way, though.
Sandy on stage, 1974
To me, one of the most moving passages in the book is recounted by Bambi Ballard, as it sets Sandy’s talent and insecurity side by side. After sharing a fair few drinks Sandy invited Bambi to “The Howff” to listen to some new songs from a forthcoming album. After each song Sandy asked, “You don’t want to hear any more, do you?” Her friend had to build her up and reassure her, yet was herself moved to tears by the songs she was hearing.
If there is one failing in this book – and there is, sadly – it is the grammar. It would be pedantic to re-read it simply to find examples, but at times the grammar is sloppy, and I feel it’s a sad reflection on the publisher that it wasn’t better proof-read and corrected. To be fair these don’t pepper every single page, nor do they spoil an otherwise excellent read, but I did find them an annoyance.
Sandy, as mentioned above, was a fairly private person. The author has made extensive use of quotations from over forty of Sandy’s former friends and colleagues. I think that the quotations have been judiciously selected and incorporated wisely at pertinent points in the text. I also like the way that they are flagged up with indentation and some bold type. Some of these quotations are very significant, others convey a truly clear, poignant or concise insight into the subject.
Other entries come from interviews with Sandy in the music press, letters, or extracts form her “notebooks”. As is to be expected, some of her lyrics are quoted; in some cases original versions of lyrics prior to amendment are included.
Illustrations, epilogue, appendix…
As well as 18 pages of black-and-white photographs of varying quality (printed on glossy paper however, to optimise definition) there are other illustrations: some of Sandy’s own line drawings (she studied art), programme covers, reproductions of letters or notebook extracts. There are also several photographs that aren’t printed on glossy paper.
I found the epilogue a helpful summary of Sandy’s story as well as a tying up of loose ends.
There is also a very helpful discography of recordings on which Sandy features; this includes some guiding comments on the virtues, or drawbacks of some editions, especially of box-sets. The discography also includes both “authorised” and “unauthorised” bootleg recordings.
For fans of Sandy Denny, or for those with an interest in British music of the 1960s-1970s I feel that this makes a fascinating, insightful and poignant read. It’s poignant rather than depressing, and there are upbeat parts of Sandy’s story to be enjoyed. Its availability new is limited.
I’m afraid that my rating reflects a point deducted for the sloppiness of the grammar in places.
My rating: 9/10
Some sample quotations
Neil Denny (Sandy’s father): “When she was young, my wife took her to the Royal College of Music, and they said, ‘Yes, a very nice little voice and it could develop very well, but don’t let her join the school choir or take part in amateur dramatics – let her sing naturally.”
Karl Dallas: “That was the incredible thing about [the young] Sandy – here was this silly little girl, dithering about onstage, tripping over the mike leads – who stood up and told you the way life is. And I remember thinking, ‘But you don’t know how life is, Sandy. How are you doing this? Where is it coming from?”
Ashley Hutchings: “The abiding memory I have of Sandy is onstage, getting tangled up in her leads, fumbling her song introduction, giggling and then breaking out into singing and suddenly it’s a totally different being there onstage.”
Sandy Denny: “I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable, sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me? I feel terrible. I go and sit down, and I’m really upset by it… It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things, and I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit sown and I write something, and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that.”
I think it appropriate though to conclude with a more upbeat quotation by Richard Thompson:
“I tend to forget the traumas and tragedies, and I just hear her laughing the most infectiously funny, unique Sandy laugh. I think most people who knew her would share the same memory.”
Although this blog and post are non-money making, I am anxious to credit any illustrations cintained.
Section “Who?”: http://getreadytorock.me.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/MBM_Sandy_Denny_Robin_Turner_1971_Lincoln_Folk_Festival.jpg
Sandy, The Marquee Club, 1966: http://www.sandydennyofficial.com/wp-content/gallery/ray-stevenson-1966/ray-stevenson-1966-marquee-club-jpeg.jpg
Sandy on stage, 1974: http://www.sandydennyofficial.com/wp-content/gallery/chuck-pulin-1974/chuck_pulin_ret2_nipple_web.jpg