In September 1971, Sandy Denny — on the heels of an incendiary contribution to “Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin‘s upcoming fourth album — released her first solo record, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. It carried with it the strength and grace of her previous efforts, and featured many of the musicians with whom she had built her reputation, namely Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention and the entirety of Fotheringay. It was a confident beginning to a too-brief solo career, and in its quiet power illustrates why Denny’s influence on the British folk and rock scenes was so profound. Like other inhabitants of her world — thinking Thompson, Nick Drake, Lal Waterson — she was writing ahead of the curve, making deeper and contemporary connections to the wellspring of traditional folk while avoiding the easier middle earth sword epics so much of the rock world was obsessed with at the time (“Battle of Evermore” being a successful example of this).
A sailor’s life, a lament, an existential sea chanty, “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens” has everything describing Denny’s talent: lyrical finesse, melodic beauty, the alchemical relationship of words to tune. And of course, that voice, the kind of voice that could sing the traditional “Tam Lin” with menace and authority on Fairport’s Liege and Lief (1969), and turn on a dime to deliver something as hauntingly beautiful as “The Sea,” a song of her own devise, from Fotheringay (1970).
There are three striking versions of “North Star.” The lovely studio original is shaded with classic early 70s British folk rock production (courtesy of John Wood), unfussy and earthy with a dynamic pop of bass and drums, Thompson’s restrained acoustic guitar not show-stopping but providing rhythmic chug while Ian Whiteman’s flute organ is suggestive of the hornpipe. A solo live appearance on the BBC has Denny at the piano, owning the song without a band, a confident performer on her way to becoming a national treasure. Denny recorded her last “North Star” in November 1977, just months before her death. Here, with a full electric band, the song has morphed from somber reflection to country rock grandeur. The recording was marred by technical difficulties in the guitar tracks and only released twenty years on, after Jerry Donahue (Fotheringay, Fairport) overdubbed new parts. Even with this in mind, Donahue’s playing and his history with Denny wins the day, making Gold Dust: Live at the Royalty one of the better samplers of her work.