Tag Archives: Unhalfbricking

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is so wet it beggars belief. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revivals less impressive vocal talents

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, and Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

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Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

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No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 3

I’ve talked about this song before in more general terms, but this time let’s just focus on the guitar

3) Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay (solo by Jerry Donahue)
I first became aware of Jerry Donahue as one of the Hellecasters, whom I just knew as three older guys pulling cheesy poses in a guitar-magazine advert for some cable they were endorsing. It would never have occurred to me as a sixteen-year-old that any of these old geezers could have made music worth listening to, let alone that the more studious-looking one with the beard and the glasses would end up being one of my very favourite guitarists, the player of one of my favourite guitar solos.

Most of what you hear in Donahue’s guitar playing is country music, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him ‘the string-bending king of the planet”!) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

Silver Threads and Golden Needles is an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers too. Yet all have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version. Sandy Denny, when looking to record it with Fotheringay, slowed it down, put it in waltz time, and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

These are the qualities to which Donahue’s two solos respond. His string-bending is rarely better showcased: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw the ‘finished’ version of Fotheringay’s second album that came out in 2008. If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be. If there were a syllabus for lead instrumentalists, to show them how to respond to the music they’e playing and avoid clichés, this should be on it.

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Jerry Donahue (left, with Telecaster) with Fairport Convention in 1974

Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay

It’s got even more autumnal since my last post. So let’s get back to it.

After she joined up with the thitherto rather wet Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny helped perfect a sound that blended traditional English and Scottish folk song, contemporary electric instrumentation and self-composed songs, an achievement that did for British music something similar to what the Band did for North American music. But as the other members of Fairport, and particularly bassist Ashley Hutchings, became more interested in updating the English folk canon, Denny grew more excited by the artistic self-expression afforded by honing her craft as singer-songwriter. She and the band therefore parted ways. Hutchings would soon leave too, to found Steeleye Span. He’d later move on again to form the Albion Band.

Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer, wanted Denny to put out a solo record and perform, front and centre, under her own name. But she was in a relationship with an Australian guitarist and singer called Trevor Lucas and wanted to cast him as her bandleader and creative foil in a democratic group, despite the vast artistic gulf between them. The resulting group was Fotheringay. The rest of the band, including the magnificent American country guitarist Jerry Donahue, was stellar, but as a result of Denny’s backing of Trevor Lucas, they spent half their time backing a singer and songwriter who had no business performing anywhere but provincial folk clubs. That this was a waste of their time and talents is revealed whenever Denny steps back up to the microphone. When she gave them a good song to work with, they could be jaw-dropping.

Fotheringay made one album before Denny went properly solo, partly a response to group tensions, partly due to Joe Boyd leaving England to take a job at Warner Brothers movie studio. From the abandoned sessions for the group’s second album came this track, in which the finest interpreter of folk songs that Britain’s ever produced tackles a country standard flawlessly. Her vocal is a completely authentic country performance, without ever softening her southern English accent.

On Silver Threads, while Jerry Donahue plays some of the most spine-tingling guitar solos ever committed to tape, the track’s unsung hero is drummer Gerry Conway. Formerly a member of Cat Stevens’s band, Conway’s placement of the snare on the last beat of the bar rather than the fourth (he occasionally slips and plays a conventional 6/8 backbeat, hitting the snare on ‘four’) is an inventive, masterly piece of timekeeping. He’s in similarly great form on Denny’s Late November, which ended up on her first solo record The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.

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Fotheringay, publicity shot