Even after all these years, I still feel a deep sadness at Sandy's death. I have as much respect for her power as a singer as for any who ever lived. It is one of my regrets that we never got the chance to sing together except when a bit inebriated in the pub as I learned a lot from her.
Sandy left us one of the high spots of all the recorded performances of traditional song I have ever heard. Her Fotheringay version of "The Banks of the Nile" is nothing short of stunning. The raw, aching, agony which she brings to her reading of it makes it impossible not to feel the grief and fear of the young woman at the separation from her loved one and the uncertainty of his return from the horrors of war.
People who argue that it is enough in singing traditional song to simply declaim the lyric without any involvement of the singer's personal experience are talking drivel. They are treating a repository of human experience with contempt and the approach they advocate is appropriate to stamp-collecting, not singing. Learning the words is not the job, it is merely the beginning of the preparation to do the job. The people who wrote those songs wrote them from personal experience, they have been kept alive because they say something of eternal relevence to the universality of human experience and it is the job of the singer, more than anything else, to put in the work necessary to study, understand and translate that experience so as to communicate it to the listener. Otherwise, we might as well just hand the members of the audience a printed copy of the lyric and we can all go home.
When I hear people justify artistic laziness in this crude way, I think of Sandy's rendition of "Banks of the Nile" where the experience of the participants, their lives and what they endured, is honoured by being treated with love and respect and is brought back to life across the gulf of time and made tangible to the listener. It is a supreme example of the craft of interpreting traditional song and is the standard every singer should be aiming for. Few will achieve it but trying will make us all better singers.
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©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
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