Lists are crass. But let’s take a straw poll on Britain’s greatest ever female singer anyway. Dusty Springfield, Kate Bush and Norma Waterson all have strong claims. Then there’s Polly Harvey, Lisa Stansfield, Katie Melua… OK, that last name’s not a serious suggestion. But it illustrates the poverty of the shortlist. Over the years, Britain has not only failed to produce home-grown giants to rival Ella, Aretha and Nina, but we’ve even struggled to come up with our own Janis, Madonna or even Alanis. Yet by the time you’ve finished listening to these five CDs, you should conclude that there is one name among the ranks of British female vocalists who outclasses them all.
Sandy Denny started out as just another frumpy folk singer with an unusually pure voice. But she ended up as our answer to Joan Baez, Grace Slick and Joni Mitchell all rolled into one. The 88 tracks here are brilliantly selected to showcase both the breathtaking diversity and remarkable consistency of her talent.
She had an intuitive feel for traditional English ballads (“Tam Lin”, “A Sailor’s Life”, “Banks Of The Nile”). But she could also do justice to the songbooks of Leonard Cohen (“Bird On A Wire”) and Bob Dylan (“Si Tu Dois Partir”). She could rock (Buddy Holly’s “Learning The Game”, Little Feat’s “Easy to Slip”) and she could sing country (the unreleased “Silver Threads”, “Golden Needles” from the Fotheringay sessions). And on songs such as “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”, “The Sea” and “No More Sad Refrains”, she proved she was a songwriter of some ability. Yet, by 1978, at the age of 31, she was dead.
The best of Denny’s widely available work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and solo is well represented. But almost a third of the tracks are previously unreleased, while another 17 have been difficult to track down until now. Among the most desirable gems are a wondrous version of Anne Briggs’ “Go Your Way My Love”, “Sir Patrick Spens” from a 1969 Peel session, and some extraordinary solo home demos of Denny originals such as “One Way Donkey Ride”, “All Our Days” and “The Music Weaver”?her tribute to the great Richard Thompson.
Just one complaint. Denny’s duet with Robert Plant on “The Battle Of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin IV would have been a valuable adornment. Yet, even without this, A Boxful Of Treasures?with suitably sumptuous packaging to reflect its title?is still a contender for most significant retrospective of the year.