Richard Thompson calls Sandy Denny “the greatest British female artist of her generation.” Clinton Heylin names her “perhaps the finest folk singer of the modern milieu.” No need for the qualifications: No one else sounded like her, no contemporary (and none since) better captured the timeless spirit of love and sorrow, gaiety and tragedy, which is the deepest achievement of folk music.
Rather than composing a seamless narrative of Denny’s life, Heylin begins his biography at the end, then pieces her life back together. He draws on the singer’s diaries and letters, and quotes at length from interviews with the managers, musicians, friends, and lovers who made up Denny’s world as the British folk revival was busy being born, flourishing, then dying.
His story argues that it was largely Denny who transformed Fairport Convention from a good folk-rock band to creators of something quite without precedent: in Denny’s words, “heavy traditional folk music.”
Heylin carefully documents the details of Denny’s recording and touring, but also pursues the more elusive goal of, to quote Keats’ biographer Aileen Ward, “the inner drama of [her] creative life.” Rarely spilling into pop or Freudian psychology, Heylin evokes a lifelong struggle with demands of creativity and doubts of “self-esteem.” That struggle is both an effect of deeper, underlying issues (familial tensions, sexual anxieties, the mediating influence of gender) and a key to her tragic end. Heylin’s prose — always vigorous, often bristling — is on the whole admirably restrained, generous without spilling into blind romanticism, skeptical without losing sympathy.
Like the final chapters of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis Presley biography Careless Love, the denouement of No More Sad Refrains is excruciating. The last year of Denny’s life began with the release of her final album, Rendezvous, and the birth of her only child, Georgia. The album was the weakest of her career and her child, born two months premature, barely survived her mother’s drug and alcohol abuse. Denny’s marriage to fellow Fairporter Trevor Lucas had disintegrated, her career was in shambles, and her voice — once so full, so magically expressive — was badly weakened.
In regard to Denny’s death, Heylin makes the persuasive case that she did not fall down a flight of stairs, as the official story has it, but that she probably suffered a brain hemorrhage, the result of an earlier, drunken fall, which (perhaps owing to her family’s failure to recognize her alcoholism) was never treated properly.
If we’ll never know exactly how she died, Heylin brings us close to knowing how, even why, Denny lived — at least as close as any biographer could. Her music tells the rest of the story.