Shocking Omissions: Sandy Denny's 'The North Star Grassman And The Ravens'

Dec 1, 2017

This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

For her first solo performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's South Bank, Sandy Denny had bought herself an expensive, sequinned, pale blue dress. It was September 1971 and her first solo album, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, had just been released; finally, this was Denny's chance to be the star she had always dreamt of being. As she entered the stage, she tripped, knocked a glass of water off her piano and struggled to get her guitar over the gown's flowing sleeves. She went off stage and came on moments later in jeans and a t-shirt to rapturous applause.

The North Star Grassman And The Ravens showcases both the potential of the sequined singer Denny wanted to be, and the clumsy tomboy who was happiest singing old songs in a smoky club, whiskey glass never far from hand. The pull of the past weighed heavily on the future, and The North Star Grassman And The Ravens fell between the cracks of two decades and two musical eras, between folk's institutional and experimental pathways.

Born Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny on Jan. 6, 1947, Sandy Denny added her inimitable, infectious alto to the great British folk-rock records of the late 1960s, working with The Strawbs, Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, who all wanted to bring electric-rock ingenuity to folk's cliquish orthodoxy. In fact, Richard Thompson, who would become her musical co-conspirator, dubbed Denny the "most important singer of [my] generation." She was a song-collector, collaborator, arranger and formidable performer who had found her calling at floor spots across London's folk scene, belting out English and Scots ballads with enviable ease.

Her big personality and even bigger voice caught the attention of prog-rock band The Strawbs, and she joined the band in 1967 just long enough to make one album, All Our Own Work. That album would remain unreleased until 1973, but was the first time she recorded one of her own songs, "Who Knows Where The Time Goes," which would be made famous by American singer Judy Collins. It positioned Denny as not just a singer, but a songwriter: a potential British Joni Mitchell. At a time when "it was far cooler to find a traditional song than write your own" (in the words of future husband, Australian singer Trevor Lucas) she was beginning to amass notebooks of songs.

Producer Joe Boyd, who had worked with Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and Nico, saw the potential in Denny and begged her to let him launch her as a solo star. Denny, however, was happier surrounded by friends and the old songs she knew so well, so Boyd suggested she join rock band Fairport Convention. It was Denny who encouraged the band to explore traditional folk, rubbing up against bassist Ashley Hutchings. Hutchings would spend hours trawling the archives at the English Folk Dance And Song Society in order to bring an obscure song to rehearsal — to which Denny would quip, "I've been singing that in clubs since I was 17."

After releasing several records with Fairport Convention, Denny left the band and formed a group of her own — which included Lucas, who she was now dating — called Fotheringay. This was finally her platform to be a singer/songwriter; she wrote five of the eight songs on the band's album herself, and arranged a beautiful Scots poem "Banks Of The Nile." But after one album, Fotheringay split and Boyd got his wish: Denny would finally record her first album.

On The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, Denny is introspective and sentimental; her covers of Brenda Lee's bluesy "Let's Jump The Broomstick" and Bob Dylan's honkytonk "Down In The Flood" almost seem out of place. The traditional folk singer had found her own voice, and in this process, unmasked her fragility and innocence. Eight of the album's 11 songs were written by Denny; they reflect upon broken hearts ("Next Time Around," "The Optimist") and absent friends ("Late November," "The Sea Captain"), including the introspective finale, "Crazy Lady Blues." The anti-war "John The Gun" and tragic tale of "Wretched Wilbur" show Denny as a master of writing traditional-sounding ballads that could fool any folk historian. But Denny could not forget her roots. Central to the album is arguably the benchmark recording of the traditional song "Blackwaterside." It was taught to her by her mentor, Anne Briggs, who in turn taught it to Pentangle's Bert Jansch, who taught it to Led Zeppelin. But Denny's version, backed on guitar by Fairport Convention colleague Richard Thompson, is the album's ray of light.

The North Star Grassman And The Ravens is Denny's pivotal moment and provided a flashpoint that opened the door for her to transcend from singer in the band to solo star in her own right. However, as marriage, motherhood and a move to the countryside clashed with pressure to write further albums, frequently perform and keep up her reputation as the life and soul of the London folk scene, Denny struggled to live between two identities. She died in April 1978 following a fall while under the influence of alcohol and prescription painkillers.

The North Star Grassman And The Ravens provided a touchstone for singer-songwriters wanting to break free of the constraints of traditional folk and cemented her as one of British music's most cherished voices. Her poignant, tender, modern folk songs would inspire Kate Bush, Cat Power, Trembling Bells and Joan Wasser as well as earn her a posthumous spot in the BBC's Folk Awards Hall of Fame in 2016. On her debut solo album, and the precious canon of songs throughout her further three albums Sandy (1972), Like An Old Fashioned Waltz (1974), and Rendezvous (1977), she left a legacy that will be forever adored and reappraised: the lady in the sequin gown, and the funny girl in the jeans and t-shirt; the star and the folk singer, remembered for all time.

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