Listen to this track by former Fairport Convention front and paragon of British folk-rock Sandy Denny. It’s “It’ll Take A Long Time”, the opening track to her 1972 album, Sandy, her second solo album.
This record would feature a few of her former bandmates in the Fairports and in Denny’s follow-up band Fotheringay, including her soon-to-be husband Trevor Lucas in the production chair, violinist Dave Swarbrick, and Richard Thompson (who you can hear very prominently on this track) on guitar. All of the mojo that everyone brought to those classic Fairports records of the late 1960s can be found here. Further still, we get Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel, adding mellifluous texture to this song in particular, and Allen Toussaint who served as an horn arranger elsewhere on the album. That’s quite a supporting cast!
But, no one outdoes Sandy Denny herself on this record which is quoted in many places as being her solo masterpiece. This is particularly true on this song, which has always been one of my favourites. Beyond Denny’s undeniable voice that seems to hold an ocean of feeling under each note as she sings it , there is a lot going on thematically in this song that reveals another of her skill sets.
This song reveals Sandy Denny’s capacity as a songwriter, and her ability to present big ideas in her work that don’t come off as overbearing. With this song, there is a ton of existential angst to be found, contrasted with imagery taken from British folk traditions; sailors on the sea, facing storms, and being uncertain as to how they got into their predicament. That contrast between dusty folk fixtures (the aforementioned sailors, storms, and seas) and spiritual states that are relevant to modern times is the engine that makes this song go.
And really, I think this is also the reason why Sandy Denny was able to innovate when it came to presenting traditional forms with rock arrangements so well. She knew how to make these kinds of connections at the songwriting level, as well as being able to reveal the emotional undercurrents when it came time to sing the material.
Another contrast that spans her work in general, and this song in particular, is the idea of time and its elusive nature. Here, it’s as mysterious as it was when she wrote “Who Knows Where The Time Goes“, a song that has now become a folk-rock standard, also featuring Richard Thompson’s second voice on guitar in much the same way as you’re hearing it on this track. But where that one took on a tone of bewilderment at time’s passing, I think here she’s figured out that the question itself was flawed all along : “There is no need for rules/There’s no-one to score the game”.
I suppose the heart of the contrast when it comes to this theme of passing time is between the sound of her voice, a singular instrument that sounds so effortless, and the lyrics that speak of such struggle. But lyrically speaking, “It’ll Take A Long Time” is something of a resolution to that earlier bewilderment found on “Who Knows…”, and that the ambiguous nature of life in this song is not a struggle at all. “Of course time passes to who knows where,” this song seems to suggest. And as mortals, we don’t get to see how the overall story ends. Of course we don’t.
All of that leads into a theme that can be traced across nearly every other track on the record, which is that of isolation, and lonely travels. Because, if we don’t know the nature of existence, maybe we are just “fretful sailors on the sea calling out our woes” to no one. Yet, perhaps that’s why she wrote this song; to point out that those fretful cries are everybody’s, whether we cling to a greater meaning beyond our own perceptions or not.
Perhaps the suggestion we can take away from this tune is that even if we feel alone, we’re really not, just because everyone is in the same boat, figuratively (and folkily!) speaking. We traverse the waters of our lives uniquely, with no one story being the same as another. But, the seas we sail as finite beings in time are common enough to sing about to each other, and to be understood in those terms too. Even in the light of our own mortality, this is ultimately comforting. If “there are no rules, and no one to score the game”, then maybe that is the loudest call to empathy, understanding, and compassion there is.
Sandy Denny died in April of 1978, by then having established a thread of musical influence that has touched many an artist that came after her, from Kate Bush to Thea Gilmore, and beyond. You can learn more about her and her work at her official website.