Sandy Denny: Sandy Denny - review

(Universal, 19 CD box set)

Sandy Denny was the finest, most versatile female British singer of the 1960s and 70s, remarkable for her treatment of anything from traditional British folk songs to American country, jazz, or rock, as well as for her own, often highly personal, brooding ballads. She was enormous fun to spend time with, hated talking about her music, and possessed a quite extraordinary voice that could switch between the gentle and the epic. She died from a fall in 1978, aged 31, without achieving the commercial success she deserved but leaving behind a remarkable set of recordings, many of them unreleased demo tracks that until now have been hidden away in a warehouse. There have been a series of bootlegs or compilations of her work in recent years, but nothing like this – a collection of 19 CDs with 316 tracks, over a third of them previously unreleased. There are powerful, previously unheard songs here, and intriguingly different versions of already well-known songs: Who Knows Where the Times Goes? makes six appearances. She was, I suspect, badly advised, for the previously unheard tracks are sometimes far better than the final release.

The set begins with her complete commercial recordings, though sadly excluding her epic duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin's The Battle of Evermore (permission to include it wasn't granted). It starts with her first recordings with Alex Campbell in 1967, when she could already switch from a thoughtful traditional song, The False Bride, to the rousing gospel/skiffle of This Train. Then comes her work with the Strawbs, Fairport Convention (including, of course, the classic Liege and Lief), the Bunch, Fotheringay, her four solo albums and her final, glorious solo concert in London a few months before her death.

But what makes this compilation special is the quality of her singing on the demos, even on her earliest home recordings from the 1960s (at last available in good, non-bootleg quality). Accompanying herself with impressive, just-audible guitar work, she sings Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe, Bert Jansch's Soho and the folk song Geordie, and already sounds distinctive, personal and emotional. In later years, Denny liked to record by starting with a solo treatment of the song, accompanying herself on piano or guitar, and then leaving it to the producer (often her husband Trevor Lucas) to add instrumentation. But her song I'm A Dreamer sounds far better in the more sparse, demo versions here than it did when lush strings were added, and the charming, swinging demo version of the Inkspots' Whispering Grass is also more successful with less orchestration.

Other previously unreleased demos show off her range, and include a powerful live treatment of Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door recorded in 1974 in Los Angeles with Fairport. Then there's a delightful honky-tonk duet with Richard Thompson on Walking the Floor Over You and a final, powerful set of solo home recordings, including her last composition, the sad and poignant Makes Me Think of You. Recommended – and not just for folk enthusiasts.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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