Sandy Denny – The North Star Grassman and the Ravens

Posted on 16 June 2011 by Joe

As an introduction to the talents and flaws of the late English folk singer Sandy Denny this reissue (release date June 20, 2011) of her debut solo album does a pretty good job.

It also offers  a chance to look back on the start of a solo career that never quite took off in the same way as many of her male peers, such as Richard Thompson, John Martyn and Bert Jansch. A career that also failed to bring Denny the same commercial appeal of other female singer songwriters such as Carole King and latterly Kate Bush, who was emerging as a major recording artist shortly before Denny’s death in 1978.

For many Denny’s greatest achievement was not as a solo artist, but as part of the 1960s Fairport convention line up that created the ground breaking folk rock album Liege and Leif. It would be a foolish music fan indeed though to dismiss her solo work. To do so would miss out on some of her best vocal performances and song writing. But equally it would also be remiss to get too misty eyed about her talents. Denny as a person and a recording artist was a mess at times and this album is not without its faults.

Recorded in 1971 after she had left Fairport Convention and her follow up band Fotheringay had come to an end, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens offers a range of styles from blues, to folk to King-esque piano ballads. It marks a transition for Denny from her folk roots to forging a career as a  female British singer songwriter, unheard of at the time.

In terms of the folk and folk rock tracks on this debut she is peerless as a vocalist. Her electric version of the traditional ‘Blackwaterside’ is wondrous. The title track , her own composition, is another and one that is heavily influenced by folk tradition, of sailors never returning and imprisonment in towers, which was a particular theme throughout Denny’s songwriting.

But it is her more personal  ballads were this album really comes alive. ‘Late November’, about the death of former Fairport band member Martin Lamble, and ‘Next Time Around’ about former boyfriend, the tragic Jackson C. Frank, are real standouts here. ‘The Optimist’ is another wonderfully written track and the more low key production of ‘Crazy Lady Blues’, reportedly about her friend Linda Thompson,  is another treasure.

Where the album falls down though is on the more bluesy numbers. Denny was an accomplished blues singer, but her take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Down in the Flood’ and Charles Robins ‘Let’s Jump the Broomstick’ just sound weak and unadventurous in comparison to tracks like ‘Late November’. Crucially it is also hard not to compare her with one of the greatest and most popular female blues singer of the period, Janis Joplin, on such tracks.

Clearly in producing the album discussion took place as to whether this Joplin-esque blues style should be more prominent, with ‘Honky tonk Woman’ among tracks rejected.  Thankfully her more personal style won through. Nevertheless the mix of styles leaves an album that is uneven when held up against say King’s ‘Tapestry’ or even Bush’s ‘Kick Inside’.

The extras on this reissue, featuring some BBC live recordings as well as demos,  are a welcome addition and just as interesting as the original album. The low key demo of ‘The Optimist’ is among the best, revealing itself to be better than the finished article. Free from the polish of a mixing desk and a full band the song writing of Denny is allowed to shine on this track.

Denny was an undoubted talent that through her unique English folk voice managed to evoke a sense of melancholy, drama and realism to her songs that few others can match. But her voice was perhaps ultimately the undoing of her solo career, with its strong folk style never accessible enough to achieve a global audience even if it influenced many.   She  also hated being on her own and found solo touring difficult at times. She died in 1978, of a brain hemorrhage weeks after a drunken fall onto concrete at her parent’s Cornwall cottage, a much loved cult figure but not the star that this start of her solo career promised.

8.5/10

by Joe Lepper

See Also: Top Ten Albums from the Golden Age of Folk Music

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Lynda Redwitch Says:

    A very good review and I think very accurate assessment of the songs.
    Sorry but what does really bug me is people getting their facts wrong. Sandy died after falling down a flight of stairs at her friend’s home in London & no suggestion of her being drunk. The reason I know is because I went to the house and met her friend just after Sandy died. Please try to get things right!

  2. Joe Says:

    Thanks for the comment, and I think we may both be right about her sad death.

    She did indeed fall down at her friends house, as you are right to point out, but some weeks previously she fell hard onto concrete at her parent’s cottage. She was drunk then and her parents decided not to take her to hospital due to the embarrasment. Afterwards she complained of headaches and was taking painkillers. It is widely thought by a number of sources that the hemorrhage was triggered through the initial fall at her parents.

    You are right to point out tht she was not drunk at her friend’s house and no alcohol was found in her body then, that is why I was quite careful to write “She died in 1978, of a brain hemorrhage weeks after a drunken fall onto concrete at her parent’s Cornwall cottage”. I wanted to point out that she was drunk then, because much of her last year involved drink. The accounts, from those such as close friend Linda Thompson, of her crashing her car with her baby in it and leaving her baby in the pub are particularly disturbing.

    For more detailed analysis of her death from first hand sources I recommend the book Electric Eden by Rob Young. Although sounds like you know the first hand sources yourself and you are quite right to add further clarity to Sandy’s story.

  3. Lynda Redwitch Says:

    Thank you for clarify the facts. Sorry, I do get a bit defensive over these things! Have spent 30 years reading reports of another’s musician’s mis-reported death. But you clearly did your research and it still is a great review!

  4. Joe Says:

    No problem, always good to add more detail in these comments. And as I said I recommend that Rob Young book very highly.

    btw…look out next week (starting June 20) for our review of a mammoth 80 song collection of Richard Thompson’s BBC sessions.

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