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.
Listen to this track by British folk paragon and singer-songwriter Bridget St. John. It’s “A Day A Way” the opening track as taken from her 1971 album Songs For The Gentle Man which, as Wikipedia puts it best, “propelled her to cult status in the United Kingdom”. I love that: propelled her to cult status.
It’s not like this record went under the radar of some key influencers at the time. None other than John Peel was a major supporter in a variety of capacities. Her first three records, including this one, came out on his Dandelion label. And he produced her debut Ask Me No Questions, and arranged several Peel sessions. According to a piece in July 2006 issue of MOJO magazine, he even shouted down a loutish crowd so that she could be heard during an early tour before she recorded her first record. If only Peel had been there to do the same when Nick Drake toured.
And speaking of Drake, St. John played with him in Le Cousins, a folk club in Soho in London. They had a common friend in John Martyn who was something of a mentor to St. John when it came to the guitar. Much like both men mentioned, she unlocked her melodic sense when it came to songwriting by way of open tunings, and with a flurry of natural imagery in her lyrics. This is not to mention that patented melancholy that makes her work so compelling, and so tied to the British folk sound of the time.
But, there’s something unique to be found in this song, and St. John’s work in general. Read more
Listen to this track by guitar demigod and British folk-rock granddaddy Richard Thompson. It’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, a song about a boy, a girl, and a motorbike, taken from Thompson’s 1991 record Rumour & Sigh, a gem, and a perennial live track from his best-selling record to date.
This record was something of a mid-career high point for Thompson, who’d been making records for a pretty long time by this point; over two decades, if you include his work with Fairport Convention, and the multitude of times he served as a sessioner for other artists. But, just because an artist of his experience had had a few records out, it didn’t mean there wasn’t a masterpiece still left to deliver. And that’s what I think this song is; it’s a masterpiece.
It’s a song that gathers all of his strengths as an artist in one place. It features his superlative guitar-playing skills. It demonstrates his capacity for compelling storytelling in the style of traditional English ballads. And, most importantly of all, it shows his flair for emotionally connected undercurrents to a song’s narrative that makes you care about the characters, just as you should in any story.
But this song is important beyond what it represents in terms of Thompson’s output. It provided an important stylistic bridge, or rather pointed the way to one, from one musical tradition to another.
Listen to this track by British folk-jazz super-group that included Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson, and Terry Cox; Pentangle. It’s “Light Flight” a single from their celebrated 1969 album Basket of Light.
Along with Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, and Steeleye Span, Pentangle was a key group in the emerging British folk-rock sound by the end of the 1960s. However, it has been pointed out by critics, fans, and even band members, that jazz had far more to do with their sound than rock ever did.
This idea is certainly evident in this tune, with shifting time signatures being pretty far away from the rock backbeat, and more in line with the polyrhythmic nature of modern jazz. In this song, all of the instruments drive the rhythm, including McShee’s vocals in this folk tale (actually an original by McShee) that served as a single, reaching a modest #43 in the UK charts in 1970, and serving as the theme song for British series Take Three Girls.
But, where jazz chops certainly informed this piece, particularly from Thompson and Cox who came out of that musical stream, one of the more interesting things about it has to do with the nature and structure of the traditional British folk music that inspired the band’s sound in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk singer-songwriting savant Nick Drake. It’s “One Of These Things First”, a track off of his 1970 LP Bryter Layter, his second record and known to be the most accessible of his small, yet extremely potent, body of work.
Nick Drake only released three records during his lifetime, and every one of them sounded different. Baroque, folk, pop, jazz, and starkly-rendered solo acoustic textures are some of the major stylistic bases he explored on his three albums that are now all considered essential by anyone with an opinion that matters.
Although his work was varied, and was arguably the first stages in his process of finding his voice as a major artist, Nick Drake’s music contains a common undercurrent at the centre of all of his records.