Yes they probably invented folk rock but also, on their landmark third album, Fairport Convention, presented a view of England that has now been lost… one of violent division along lines of class and gender but one that was also positive and questing, says Michael Hann
One autumn evening a couple of years ago, my friends and I were drinking outside a pub in behind Euston station. As the last of the sun bathed the tables, a group of men and women assembled in the street. They were wearing white shirts and trousers, red neckerchiefs around their throats, bells tied to their ankles. They carried sticks. As they took their places in formation, my friends started sniggering to each other: Here they are, the racists, UKIP’s morris-dancing wing. Continue reading
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
May 12, 1969 bus crash killed Fairport Convention drummer Martin Lamble and severely injured other members of the group.
As the summer of 1969 approached, the future looked bright for Fairport Convention, as their second album, What We Did on Our Holidays, expanded the band’s audience with a more rock-inflected version of their folk sound. But an awful tragedy nearly destroyed the band just as all their hard work was starting to pay off.
In the early morning hours of May 12, as the group traveled back from a celebratory gig in Birmingham shortly after wrapping up work on their next album, their van veered off the road — and in the aftermath of the crash, Fairport Convention would never be the same. The wreck killed drummer Martin Lamble, who was just 19 at the time, as well as fashion designer and magazine columnist Jeannie Franklyn, who’d been dating guitarist Richard Thompson. Thompson suffered a broken shoulder and bassist Ashley Hutchings was sent to the hospital with assorted serious injuries, while guitarist Simon Nicol, who’d been sleeping on the floor of the vehicle when it went off the road, escaped with a concussion.
“Our road manager and sound guy, Harvey Bramham, did most of the driving although I’d do a bit to relieve him. On this particular gig, he’d been feeling peaky all day, quite unwell,” explained Nicol in a post on the Fairport Convention website. “I had a bad migraine so I wasn’t in a seat; I was stretched out on the floor with a blanket over my head trying to sleep off this terrible headache. When I woke up, the van was doing things which didn’t involve the wheels being in contact with the ground: when it stopped moving, I was the only one left. All the gear had gone out of the back and all the people had gone out through the windows and doors.”
With the release of their next album mere weeks away, the members of the group had to decide whether they could even carry on as a unit. “That was a big watershed, I think. In the aftermath, we thought a lot about what to do, whether to call it a day. It had been fun while it lasted but it took a definite effort of will to continue,” recalled Nicol. “It had given us a lot but now it had taken away a lot: was it worth it if it was going to cost people their lives?”
“We were totally fractured, in more ways than one,” Hutchings told the Guardian. “It seemed like I was in hospital for months. When I woke up at the side of the M1, I thought I’d lost my sight. As it was, it was just that both eyes were terribly cut and bruised, and eventually, that improved. But I had a broken nose, broken cheekbone, a lot of head injuries, a broken pelvis, a bad ankle injury. All of those things took a long time to heal. People were asking us about the future, but we couldn’t conceive of planning one.”
“We were very traumatized,” added Thompson. “And there was this feeling: ‘Should we carry on? Has the stuffing been knocked out of us?’ But eventually, we made a conscious effort. We got together and said, ‘Yes, we are carrying on.'” As Nicol put it, “We all felt psychologically traumatized as well as being damaged physically. But by the time Ashley’s face was back together and Richard’s bones were healing, we’d decided to rebuild the band and carry on.”
While Fairport Convention handled the last few bits of work to prepare their third LP, Unhalfbricking, for its July 1969 release, DJ John Peel hosted a benefit concert featuring Family, Pretty Things, and Soft Machine on May 25 to raise money for Lamble and Franklyn’s families. While they soldiered on, the pall of the accident continued to loom; as Hutchings later told the Guardian, he can’t even look at the cover of Unhalfbricking without thinking about the tragedy. “My memory of it is bound up with the terrible car crash. On the back cover we’re all eating around a table. The shirt and the leather waistcoat I’m wearing are what I had on when the crash happened. I can clearly remember them being bloodstained,” he explained. “You don’t forget things like that.”
In fact, although the group soon found a new drummer in Dave Mattacks and rebounded to create one of their most successful albums with Liege & Lief later that year, Hutchings was on his way out of the band. “I believe the crash hung over the band in unseen ways,” mused Nicol. “I think it was one of the unspoken reasons for the next big change, when Ashley decided to leave the band later that year after we had recorded Liege & Lief and relaunched the band to some fanfare and acclaim. Whatever the upfront reasons about musical differences and wanting to concentrate on traditional material, I think the accident was the underlying reason why Ashley felt he couldn’t continue with us.”
Fairport Convention’s lineup would continue to change quite a bit over the years, but aside from a hiatus between 1979-’85, they’ve continued to tour and record steadily — and although Nicol is the only original member left, he wouldn’t mind seeing the Fairport name continue after he’s gone. “I’d like Fairport to become the first band to be like a male voice choir, carrying on through changes of personnel but retaining its identity,” he wrote on the band’s site.
“After all, no one bats an eyelid about a brass band playing on long after all the original members are gone. Why shouldn’t there be a Fairport Convention in fifty or a hundred years?”