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This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music’s list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
For her first solo performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s South Bank, Sandy Denny had bought herself an expensive, sequinned, pale blue dress. It was September 1971 and her first solo album, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, had just been released; finally, this was Denny’s chance to be the star she had always dreamt of being. As she entered the stage, she tripped, knocked a glass of water off her piano and struggled to get her guitar over the gown’s flowing sleeves. She went off stage and came on moments later in jeans and a t-shirt to rapturous applause.
The North Star Grassman And The Ravens showcases both the potential of the sequined singer Denny wanted to be, and the clumsy tomboy who was happiest singing old songs in a smoky club, whiskey glass never far from hand. The pull of the past weighed heavily on the future, and The North Star Grassman And The Ravens fell between the cracks of two decades and two musical eras, between folk’s institutional and experimental pathways.
Born Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny on Jan. 6, 1947, Sandy Denny added her inimitable, infectious alto to the great British folk-rock records of the late 1960s, working with The Strawbs, Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, who all wanted to bring electric-rock ingenuity to folk’s cliquish orthodoxy. In fact, Richard Thompson, who would become her musical co-conspirator, dubbed Denny the “most important singer of [my] generation.” She was a song-collector,…