Sandy Denny’s career was in decline when, after a fall, she died April 21st of a cerebral hemorrhage. Best known for her work in the late Sixties as a lead singer and songwriter for Fairport Convention, a British folk-rock band, she had made a series of increasingly ineffective solo albums since leaving the group in 1970, briefly rejoined a dry-bones version of Fairport in 1974, and at the time of her death was preparing to try her luck in the United States. Denny left her husband, Trevor Lucas, and their nine-month-old daughter, Georgia; she was thirty-one.
Denny was less a folk singer than a singer who meant to defeat time, and that may be why, in her strongest moments, no female singer of the last ten years could touch her. As with Van Morrison on Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, no one else could go where she went. The cover of Fairport Chronicles, an almost ideal collection of Fairport and post-Fairport recordings, is a photo of Stonehenge; listening to Denny, you might imagine her taking in the history that image represents in a glance. Simply, there was no distance in her music, or at least in the music for which she will be remembered: her singing on her own “Fotheringay”and “Who Knows where the Time Goes,” on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It with Mine, Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson’s “Genesis Hall” and “Meet on the Ledge,” the traditional ballads “Tam Lin,” “A Sailor’s Life,” and “Matty Groves,” or on her raging duet with Robert Plant for Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.” She sang about serfs and noblemen with the naturalism of a woman describing everyday life, and she sang about everyday life as if from the perspective of a woman a thousand years gone.
There was nothing spectacular about Denny’s clear, even voice; she didn’t use it to hit notes. Rather, it was the feeling she put into her singing that stayed with a listener: she never flinched from the emotion of her songs. Whether her tone was delicate, as with “Fotheringay,” or furious, as on “Tam Lin,” it always held its shape. What you heard was a kind of awe at the contingency of human life and the beauty of the world, a certain reverence for the past, and a steady determination to take her place in the long story she was telling: if Joan Baez turned the ancient “Matty Groves,” the tale of a deadly rivalry between a peasant and a lord, into a protest against social inequality, Denny sang it as a duel with herself.
Her finest music—unlike much of the best music of the late Sixties and early Seventies—has not dated in any manner: Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief, and bits of Denny’s best solo albums, Sandy and The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, sound as if they would have been as appropriate well before Denny was born as they would years from now. But then, Denny didn’t often sing about matters that date. On the first Fairport Convention album there is an instrumental Denny co-wrote; she hums in the background. The title that was given to the tune is “The Lord Is in This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place,” and I doubt if I am the only fan of Sandy Denny’s who thought of it when I heard that she had died.
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1978