Who Knows Where the Time Goes? — sadness surrounds Sandy Denny’s classic ballad 

Written when the singer was just 19, this plaintive song has been covered extensively

Neil Armstrong AUGUST 26, 2019

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 CassidyNana MouskouriMary BlackLumiere with Sinéad O’ConnorSusanna HoffsKate 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

Source: Who Knows Where the Time Goes? — sadness surrounds Sandy Denny’s classic ballad —


Strangers In The Room: A Journey Through The British Folk Rock Scene 1967-73

British Folk Rock 1967-1973 – the tip of the iceberg but an interesting and varied collection from the Grapefruit genre anthology series.

And that’s despite the confession of folk brigand Eliza Carthy (Louder Than Words festival interview, Manchester, 2018) that she can’t stand Folk Rock and has never knowingly listened to a Fairport Convention album.

She’ll not be interested then to hear how sixty tracks gather together the familiar with the less so. Songs that you’ll know from the folk tradition and plenty of others which  again, might be less so. If there’s anyone who could lay a claim to knowing all the bands and all the songs then you perhaps deserve a place at the head of the table if not the Eggheads team. Steeleye Span, Ralph McTell Continue reading

Joe Boyd on “Liege and Lief”

Klipsch Audio presented Classic Album Sundays at Bestival 2014, where Joe Boyd discussed the album “Liege and Lief” by Fairport Convention using Klipsch La Scala speakers. Boyd is a record producer and writer who formerly owned Witchseason production company and Hannibal Records. His impact on the recording careers of some of the world’s greatest bands is immeasurable.

Guitar man: An interview with Richard Thompson

Groundbreaking British DJ John Peel once called him “the best kept-secret in the world of music,” but Richard Thompson has been flatpicking raging guitar solos for more than 50 years.


Groundbreaking British DJ John Peel once called him “the best kept-secret in the world of music,” but Richard Thompson has been flatpicking raging guitar solos for more than 50 years. He burst onto London’s swinging music scene in 1967 as the teenage singer and guitarist for Fairport Convention, the seminal folk-rock band that married traditional English songs with an infectious rock groove. In the ’70s, he began singing hypnotic duets in harmony with his then-wife Linda; their best-known album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, was released in 1974.

In the early ’80s, the singer-songwriter went solo and has regularly put out albums ever since. Though he remains relatively under the radar, the press takes regular notice of him: In 2011, Time magazine listed his 1991 fingerpicking masterpiece “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” as one of their All-TIME 100 Songs, and in 2015, Rolling Stone put him at #69 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011 for his musical contributions.

Last September, he released 13 Rivers, his 18th solo album. It features 13 thundering, mostly minor-key songs that Thompson vaguely describes as having been written during a dark time in his life. He brings the Richard Thompson Electric Trio, with drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Feb. 14. Pasatiempo reached him by phone at his rented house in New Jersey, where he was resting up in advance of his 2019 tour.

Pasatiempo: The songs on your new album have been described as having a “grim urgency” and an “unflinching gaze,” which could also characterize much of your songwriting over your career. In the first verse of the opener, “Storm Won’t Come,” you sing, “I’m longing for a storm to blow through town/And blow these sad old buildings down/Fire to burn what fire may/And rain to wash it all away.” Are these songs for troubled times, or is this just business as usual for you?

Richard Thompson: It’s not that bad if you really listen to it. [laughs] I don’t think I’ve written literally about anything. I’ve been in this parallel world of song fiction. I’m sure all these traumas that my son has been through are reflected in there.

Continue reading

Sandy Denny BBC interviews

1969 interview with John Peel

[Above] John Peel interviewing Sandy Denny, singer of Fairport Convention, broadcast on BBC Radio One from 27th December 1969. [Below] Sandy is interviewed on John Peel’s ‘Sounds on Sunday’ in January 1974 and also interviewed for BBC Manchester in 1974. Both interviews are to promote her album “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz”.

1972 “Tomorrow’s People” BBC
1974 with John Peel