All Our Own Work dates from Sandy Denny’s early years – pre-Fairport, Fotheringay and the solo years – and with this new edition (released on the Strawbs’ own label, Witchwood Media) its full story can at last be told. It was originally only released in 1973, to cash in on Sandy’s solo success and, more specifically, on the Top Ten presence of Strawbs’ “Part of the Union”.
Sandy joined the group in 1966, when they were still known as The Strawberry Hill Boys, touring the club circuit as a bluegrass-influenced folk duo. The tracks were recorded in Copenhagen in July 1967. Previous issues of the music have stated it was 1968, which has led to some confusion in chronicling her movements at this formative stage in the careers of all involved. The Witchwood CD contains remastered version of the original 12 tracks, plus nine more outtakes and demos (including a beautiful version of “Two Weeks Last Summer”, a Strawbs song which Denny eventually took into the Fotheringay repertoire), and three unheard tunes including the decidedly uncanny “Pieces of 79 and 15”.
I asked singer Dave Cousins (pictured left on the CD cover) for some memories of how this recording came together. “All Our Own Work is much misunderstood and its history is a complex web,” he says. “Strawbs were very popular on the folk club scene at the time I met Sandy Denny. We had done innumerable BBC radio shows including Saturday Club, but no record company was interested. We were in a transition period between being Britain’s first bluegrass group and writing our own songs. When Sandy joined us it all gelled, our voices blended, and the new songs that I was writing suited her perfectly. We made some demos in the studio at Cecil Sharp House, and Tom Browne, a pal of mine with whom I produced a weekly radio show for Danmarks Radio, offered to play them to Karl Emil Knudsen, the head of Sonet Records in Denmark, who had recorded albums by Alex Campbell and Dave Swarbrick. Karl phoned us to offer us a contract for one album and off we went to record in Copenhagen.”
Sonet was not distributed in the UK, but while Cousins was shopping it around to domestic labels, Sandy apparently played the tapes to Joe Boyd, who persuaded her to join the singer-less Fairport Convention instead. So there was no longer any working Sandy & The Strawbs for anyone to sign.
“As it happens,” Cousins continues, “a few weeks later A&M in Los Angeles wanted to sign Sandy & The Strawbs, but had missed out. They sent us money to make a Strawbs single and, once they heard it, Strawbs became the first British band to be signed to A&M. In 1992 Joe Boyd released a different version of the album that focused on Sandy, but which comprise mostly outtakes, some with orchestral overdubs. It was OK, you could hear the wow and flutter, but for me the running order didn’t present the material at its best. In 2008 I called on Storyville Records [in Copenhagen], who owned the album. It took me two years to negotiate the deal but here it is.”
For more on this record, see my review in the forthcoming August issue of Uncut. By the way, the BBC recordings mentioned by Cousins are also being released in July, in two volumes by Universal. Seven studio sessions between 1968–73, and a disc of live material from 1971–4.
(As an aside, given The Strawbs’ later interest in ‘antiques and curios’, I've always found it interesting to note that the Strawberry Hill Boys unconsciously named themselves after the 18th century Richmond pile owned by Horace Walpole, one of England's earliest, eccentric antiquarians and subject of an ongoing exhibition at London’s V&A Museum. For my book, I found a fantastic photo of the group around the time of 1971’s From the Witchwood LP, clustered outside some old curiosity shop.)