The rain is battering against the windows, the sun is refusing to make the briefest of appearances in a pewter-grey sky, the short day will almost be over and England are getting hammered in the cricket. It is late November and even the cheeriest of souls may feel a touch of autumnal melancholy.
Late November. The Victorian poets would have lapped up the image. It is the perfect title to one of Sandy Denny’s most perfect of songs. Look at this live studio recording from the BBC’s Sounds Of The Seventies radio programme from August 1971 and hosted by Bob Harris. The doom-laden notes on the piano are a hint at the song’s sense of foreboding:
The wine it was drunk, the ship it was sunk
The shot it was dead, all the sorrows were drowned.
The birds they were clouds, the brides and the shrouds
And as we drew south the mist it came down
Late November made its first appearance on an Island sampler,
El Pea, in 1971. These generously priced samplers, which also included Nice Enough To Eat and Bumpers, were eye-openers for we sixth-formers who were short of funds at the beginning of the Seventies. They were also a canny marketing device for Island Records. Who wouldn’t want to buy albums by Traffic, Free and Nick Drake and Sandy Denny’s first solo package, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, after hearing Late November?
By the time Late November appeared on The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, Denny’s vocals had been redubbed and a guitar part added for Richard Thompson. The song was also recorded by Fotheringay in 1970 and appeared on the group’s unfinished second album.
Listening to Late November now, it is tempting to bracket it with songs like the Tolkienesque The Battle of Evermore, Sandy Denny’s gorgeous cameo on Led Zeppelin’s fourth and greatest album. The lyric gets no cheerier and its meaning no clearer:
The wooded ravine to the wandering stream
The serpent he moved, but no one would say.
The depths of the waters, the bridge which distraught us
And brought to me thoughts of the ill-fated day
Now we come to the crux of the song and the meaning of the phrase ‘ill-fated day’. In 1969 Denny was walking on a beach in Scotland’s
St Andrews Bay with her Airedale Watson when she saw a jet fighter crash into the sea. She recalled later that she had seen this beach before, in a dream earlier in the year. The dream featured Harvey Bramham, a roadie for Denny’s group at the time, Fairport Convention. In the dream Bramham was persuading Denny to hold the wheel of the van they were in while he changed the van’s stereo. Denny wrote in her diary: ‘On the right-hand side of the road was the sea. We were driving along the edge. The sea was black and choppy. The sky was stormy grey.’
The diary is eerily prophetic. Two months later Bramham was driving Fairport Convention home from a gig at Mothers Club in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington. It crashed on the M1, killing the group’s drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend. Denny escaped as she was driving back to London with her boyfriend Trevor Lucas. Fairport, traumatised by the deaths, went on to record the monumental Liege And Lief but it was to be Denny’s last album with the group.
The temples were filled with the strangest of creatures
One played it by ear on the banks of the sea.
That one was found but the others they went under.
Oh the tears which are shed, they won't come from me
The song’s final verse is not as lyrically oblique as it might have sounded if the story of the crashes of the plane and van were not known and the reference in the first verse to the mist coming down with the journey heading south all too clear:
The pilot he flew all across the sky and woke men.
He flew solo on the mercury sea.
The dream it came back, all about the tall brown people,
The sacred young herd on the phosphorus sand
Denny died in 1978 and, like Nick Drake, who took his own life four years earlier, she remains a mythical figure. On the cover of The North Star Grassman And The Ravens she is pictured mixing herbs like some fairy princess, a gas light on the wooden wall and that weak autumnal sun shining through the lead latticed windows.
It is late November. Denny was one of Britain’s great folk singers, one of Britain’s greatest singers full stop. She was also an underrated songwriter. Late November is a haunting example of her talent.
If Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree appears to predict his death and the fame that only comes to him when ‘the stalk is in the ground’, there is a similar evocative feel to another of Sandy Denny’s saddest refrains in the song Fotheringay:
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
Nowadays on the site of Mothers Club in Erdington’s high street is a Polish supermarket. Sandy Denny’s music will endure for ever.