Here’s a clip featuring British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention with their song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, featuring the angelic vocals of Sandy Denny, who also wrote it. This is one of the bands’ defining moments, with British folk traditions melded with what might be called a pop sensibility, a centrepiece to the band’s landmark 1969 Unhalfbricking LP.

While working as a nurse for the British National Health Service, Sandy Denny pursued an interest in traditional British folk music.  On her entry into Fairport Convention, it was Denny who steered the group away from American folk material and turned them toward the traditional music of their own history.
While working as a nursing trainee for the British National Health Service, Sandy Denny pursued an interest in traditional British folk music. On her entry into Fairport Convention, it was Denny who steered the group away from American folk material and turned them toward the traditional music of their own history.

There is a sort of soaring sadness to this tune, as if the song is taking on the weight of existence itself.  And yet, what comes out of it is mostly about how gorgeous it sounds, featuring Sandy Denny’s most heartfelt and indelible vocal ever committed to vinyl.  It is incredible to me that Denny ever thought of herself as a second tier singer, which she once did feel but for the protestations of her bandmates and friends.

And as a writer, she proved her worth with this song alone, covered as it was by many including her American vocal counterpart Judy Collins, who brought this song to the fore in North America when she had a hit with it a year before. Yet Denny remained insecure, and uncertain of her own worth as an artist.

In addition to her work with the Fairports, her solo recordings, and other short lived folk-rock bands, Denny might be best known by rock fans as the female voice on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” from their untitled fourth album in 1971, the only person to date ever to sing on a Led Zeppelin song who isn’t Robert Plant. Indeed, Plant had been a musical admirer of Denny’s and a fan of Fairport Convention, calling her “the best of all the British girls” when it came to vocal prowess. Yet, her solo career took some time to gain momentum, despite the respect she commanded among her peers.

This is possibly because of her own insecurity.  But it may also have to do with Denny’s dual interests in traditional material and her own songs, each set of interests vying for attention on her albums.  As such, her entry into the American market, obsessed at the time with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, was somewhat diluted despite her obvious talents.  The pressures of a professional career, and her natural shyness, combined with a prodigious appetite for drinking and smoking, hurt her chances even more.

In 1978, Sandy took a fall down a flight of stairs while visiting with her parents in Cornwall.  She died later of a brain hemorrhage related to the injury.   She left behind a daughter Georgia, and a body of work which would continue to inspire other singer-songwriters in the British folk tradition including Kate Rusby, Cara Dillon, Thea Gilmore, and many others.

For a great overview of Sandy Denny’s recorded output, I heartily recommend the No More Sad Refrains: The Anthology which includes this song, a selection of her other work with Fairport, short-lived groups Fotheringay, the Bunch, and of course her solo work too.

And of course, check out the Sandy Denny MySpace page for more information and music.

Enjoy!

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