When Fotheringay’s self-titled album was released in 1970, Sandy Denny was already arguably the pre-eminent British folk singer of the time. Denny had spent the best part of the last three years with Fairport Convention, contributing to some of the finest folk music ever recorded. Their albums ‘Unhalfbricking’ and ‘Liege and Lief’, both from 1969, are benchmarks in folk rock that have few equals.
By the time Liege and Lief was completed, Denny had felt it was time to move on from Fairport Convention. Liege and Lief featured more traditional tunes than previous albums, and while Sandy loved these songs, she had spent the last five years singing other people’s songs and was keen to explore new territory. Denny had already shown glimpses of her burgeoning songwriting skills, in particular the exquisite and oft-covered ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. A solo career beckoned, but Denny wasn’t quite finished with life in a band.
The band Fotheringay was named after Denny’s song of the same name on Fairport Convention’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ album, which was in itself inspired by Fotheringay Castle. The band was made up of Denny, Trevor Lucas, Gerry Conway, Jerry Donahue and Pat Donaldson. While a genuine band, Fotheringay was very much Denny’s vehicle, and as such she contributes four of the eight tracks on their debut (and only) album. She also co-wrote ‘Peace in the End’ with Trevor Lucas.
‘Fotheringay’ is a stunning album and a great leap forward for Sandy Denny as a songwriter. Two tracks stand out amongst the albums many gems, both written by Denny. ‘Nothing More’ is one of the best songs Sandy would ever write, but for me it is ‘The Sea’ that remains Fotheringay’s crowning achievement.
For the most part, ‘The Sea’ conveys a sense of raw and beautiful power, the ocean as an enigmatic but undeniable force. Denny wrote the song in the first person, so the singer becomes the sea, embodying its mysterious nature. The words often tease, test and taunt us:
“Do you ever wonder? You don’t know
You’ll never follow and I’ll never show”
“You laugh at me on funny days, but mine’s the sleight of hand
Don’t you know I’m a joker, a deceiver”
Sandy’s songs often have a distinctly autumnal tone, warm remembrances of the best of times, but always an awareness of how happiness can be fleeting and often elusive.
This autumnal quality is best heard in Sandy Denny’s voice. Sandy’s voice had a strength and purity that would overflow with such life-affirming joy, and at the same time expressed a vulnerability that could be heartbreaking but was always extraordinarily touching.
We see both of these sides of Sandy in ‘The Sea’:
“Time? What is that? I’ve no time to care.
I’ve lived for a long while nearly everywhere”
Sandy sings of time as if she has the wisdom of one who has an eternity of memories to call upon, and the joy and abandon of one who constantly lives in the moment. In the next line we are reminded of the inevitability of our own mortality:
“You will be taken, everyone
All you ladies and you gentlemen”
What could have been a dark and damning portent is transformed by Denny’s voice – she sings of ‘you ladies and you gentlemen’ with a warmth and gentleness that is calming beyond measure.
We see these counterpoints throughout the song, an ebb and flow that reflects the mystery of the sea and how it can overwhelm us whilst cradling us to its heart at the same time.
I feel I should also highlight Jerry Donahue’s wonderful guitar on this recording. His playing complements Denny’s voice with a wonderful clarity.
Here is Sandy speaking of the song to Melody Maker in 1970:
“Whenever I sing The Sea I think about a particular beach in Wales where I sat late at night, rather sad, a long time ago when I was about 18. It was almost like watching Cinerama as the sun went down.
As sad as this memory is, I understand the sentiment. For so many of us, modern life acts to distance us from nature. When we are lucky enough to experience moments where we do feel connected to the natural world, it can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. I think that is what Sandy experienced that day and later expressed in her song. We know that such beauty and power can be destructive, but we are drawn to it nonetheless, seeking a connection to something elemental and even spiritual in essence.
There is a timeless quality to ‘The Sea’ which I think is apparent in so much of Sandy’s music. The song is now 43 years old, but it sounds like it could have been written yesterday, or a hundred years ago. I still listen to the song a lot, and I sometimes imagine Sandy sitting on that beach in Wales all those years ago. She is sometimes smiling or laughing and often sad, but always, always singing.