Written when the singer was just 19, this plaintive song has been covered extensively
The inmates of Wandsworth prison in London who participate in the Liberty Choir singing programme have a favourite song. In a recent BBC Radio 4 report on the community choir’s work inside the jail, presenter Mishal Husain observed the effect of this song on the prisoners: “Some sing, others close their eyes, one drops his head right down and I can see that he’s crying.”
But it’s not just those serving prison sentences who have their heartstrings tugged by “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”, the reflective, melancholy masterpiece of singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. Rufus Wainwright, who performed it at as a tribute to Denny at the 2016 Radio 2 Folk Awards, thinks it “one of the saddest songs ever written”. Singer Linda Thompson once joked that her close friend Denny wrote “songs that people can shoot themselves to”.
Across its three brief verses, Denny uses images of a “sad, deserted shore”, birds migrating and seasonal change to evoke a profoundly plaintive sense of loss and of the passage of time. There is a thin shaft of light in the last verse — “I am not alone while my love is near me” — but it does little to dispel the overwhelming sense of regret and sorrow.
The version of the song that most regard as definitive was released almost exactly half a century ago on Unhalfbricking, the third album by folk-rockers Fairport Convention and their second with Denny as a member. Here her vocal is emphasised by the delicate filaments of Richard Thompson’s understated electric guitar work, but it is the haunting voice, both powerful and fragile, that hooks the attention and reels you in.
Alexandra “Sandy” Denny was born in Wimbledon, London, in 1947 and began singing in London’s folk clubs in the mid-1960s. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” — originally titled “Ballad of Time” — was, astonishingly, among the first songs she wrote, at the age of 19.
There are home demo versions but she first recorded the song professionally with The Strawbs in 1967, when she was briefly in the band. They didn’t then have a deal and the album, All Our Own Work, wasn’t released until 1973.
In fact, the American folk singer Judy Collins acquired a copy of a demo and recorded and released the song before a Denny version was ever available to the public. It’s on Collins’s 1968 album of the same name and was the B-side of a single that spent nine weeks in the US charts, earning Denny around £10,000 in royalties.
Two years later came a Nina Simone interpretation, on her 1970 live album Black Gold. “Let’s see what we can do with this lovely, lovely thing,” she says in her introduction. It’s a wonderful, tender, sparsely arranged version. Simone’s voice is like warm honey and she adds some all too brief silvery piano lines.
It has since become a standard. Numerous artists have taken a tilt at it: Eva Cassidy, Nana Mouskouri, Mary Black, Lumiere with Sinéad O’Connor, Susanna Hoffs, Kate Rusby and 10,000 Maniacs among them. It was most recently recorded by by Eleanor Tomlinson, Demelza on BBC1’s Poldark, on her debut album last year.
But, as Denny’s biographer Mick Houghton says: “There’s no cover version that comes close [to Denny’s]. The underlying sadness is already in there but what makes it even sadder is what happened later.”
Although she was twice voted Britain’s best female singer by the readers of Melody Maker and had a devoted following, Denny’s post-Fairport career as a solo artist never really took wing. She died in 1978 at the age of just 31 from a brain haemorrhage after falling down stairs. It was the third such fall she’d had in as many weeks. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” was the last song she sang at her last ever performance, a village hall fundraiser for her local school.
Not everyone sees it as a mournful number. Linda Thompson now says: “I don’t find it to be sad. Great music is always uplifting to me. She was so young when she wrote it but it pinpoints exactly the feelings I have now, at 71. It also resonated strongly with me when I was a teenager. Love and loss portrayed so sweetly. A song for all ages.”
‘The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind 50 more of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.
Music credits: UMC (Universal Music Catalogue); Witchwood Media; Rhino; RCA/Legacy; Blix Street Records; Universal Music Division Mercury Records; 3u Records; Good Deeds Music; Edsel; Sony Masterworks.
Picture credit: Jan Persson/Redferns
Modern Nature – the name taken from the title of Derek Jarman’s garden diaries – is the new project of Jack Cooper, ex of Ultimate Painting / Mazes and Will Young of Beak featuring Aaron Neveu of Woods and Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias on saxophone.
Today they announce the release of their debut Nature EP, released 22nd March via Bella Union and available to preorder here, and unveil the first track from it. ‘Supernature’ is an intimately atmospheric, wildly expansive 12-minute statement of intent a world away from anything any of the members have made before. It melds the relentless rhythms of Alice Coltrane’s devotional music with the pastoral haze of Fairport Convention.
Special guest performers announced for Richard Thompson’s 70th Birthday bash at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
An incredible array of special guest performers has been announced for Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday celebration show at London’s Royal Albert Hall on September 30th 2019. This once in a lifetime concert will see eminent fellow musicians, friends and family grace the stage to mark the milestone birthday of this iconic and much-respected artist.
Joining Richard Thompson on an exceptional night will be: Alistair Anderson, Ashley Hutchings, Bob Mould, Christine Collister, Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, David Gilmour, Derek Smalls (formerly of the band formally known as Spinal Tap), Eliza Carthy, Hugh Cornwell, Jack Thompson, James Walbourne, Judith Owen, Kami Thompson, Kate Rusby, Linda Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Maddy Prior, Marc Ellington, Martin Carthy, Olivia Chaney, Simon Nicol, Teddy Thompson and Zara Phillips.
The show sold out swiftly when it was announced in April.
Richard Thompson’s enduring musical influence and accomplishments are unparalleled. Having co-founded the groundbreaking group Fairport Convention as a teenager in the 1960s, he and his bandmates invented a distinctive strain of British folk-rock. He left the group by the age of 21, followed by a decade long musical partnership with his then-wife Linda, to over 30 years as a highly successful solo artist. Thompson’s genre defying mastery of both acoustic and electric guitar along with engaging energy and onstage wit continue to earn him new fans and a place as one of the most distinctive virtuosos and writers in folk-rock history. Powered by evocative songcraft, jaw-dropping guitar playing, and indefinable spirit, this venerable icon holds a coveted spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and counts Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Americana Music Association in Nashville and the UK Americana Music Association, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC Folk Awards, a prestigious Ivor Novello Award and, of course, an OBE, among his many accolades.
A wide range of musicians have recorded Thompson’s songs including David Gilmour, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Del McCoury, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Jones, David Byrne, Don Henley, Los Lobos, and many more. His massive body of work includes many Grammy-nominated albums as well as numerous soundtracks, including Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Thompson’s latest album 13 Rivers (Proper Records) was released to widespread acclaim last September and appeared on many 2018 ‘best of the year’ lists. His accompanying tour was met with glowing reviews, including The Observer, in its Artist of the Week spread, who concluded, “Half a century after his first gig with Fairport Convention, folk-rocker Richard Thompson – trademark Stratocaster and beret intact – is as cool, energetic and contemporary as ever.”