Sandy Grey

February 1967, Aix-en-Provence, France

What I remember most from those days was a sudden, explosive sensation of freedom. The well-bred Brits worked hard to ditch their boarding school pallor. The German kids loosened up their stiff spines by studiedly slouching against the sun-drenched walls. The Americans tried to forget hometowns with names like Kalamazoo, where Middle America had been slowly squeezing them into button-down suits.

Slowly, we began to blend in, picking up slang and small mannerisms. We studied each other, looking for new ways to be. Amid the carnival colors and exotic accents, being an American girl with a guitar didn’t seem terribly interesting. I shed my California beach tan, sewed a couple of hippie dresses and bought a mod pantsuit and french minidress.

The music in the air was equally eclectic, from Jaques Brel and Johnny Hallyday to the blues and folksongs of the buskers. At a local club, I sang the usual blues and folk songs mixed with my own original songs. One evening in February, after a set, Nick Drake introduced himself. Over the next couple of months he would turn up at my flat with his guitar, often late in the evening, to play music, share a glass of wine and a toke if there was any smoke around.

Meeting Nick in Aix
By the time I met Nick in February of 1967, Bob Dylan had gone electric. Donovan was tripping down Sunny Goodge Street. The Rolling Stones were reinventing Amercan Blues classics. Burt Jansch was strolllin’ down the highway. And Dino Valenti had urged us all to get together and love one another. Folk and traditional music styles were evolving fast – looking backward and forward at the same time.

Most kids with guitars knew the same songs, learned from the same record albums. But with all the evolution and revolution in the air, it just seemed natural to get creative. Why play an old song when it was easier to make up a new one? I’d been writing my own songs for a couple of years. Making up blues songs as if I had a right to sing the blues (I didn’t) and searching for lyrics, chords, and melodies to express the avalanche of emotions I was feeling but couldn’t handle.

Nick had chosen a different path. He had mastered the intricate blues guitar fingerpicking technique of Dave Van Ronk and Reverend Gary Davis. His playing was impeccable, fluid, far outstripping anyone else around. He had also studied Jackson C. Frank more closely than anyone I knew. Soon he would base his song “Day Is Done” on Frank’s “Milk and Honey.” He filled out his repertoire with a couple of Bob Dylan songs but picked up the tempo and changed the groove so much that they were difficult to follow.

Like the troubadors that haunted the ancient streets of Aix, we used music as a way of expressing our personal taste and feelings. We didn’t hesitate to “borrow” a traditional melody or create something that blended folk song with current singer-songwriter styles. You can hear a wonderful – much later – example of this in Nick’s “From the Morning,” a song with a finger-picking style that harks straight back to the sing-along folk songs of the mid-1960s but has a unique and powerful lyric theme.

Sandy Grey
My song “Sandy Grey” was born out of that desire to use the folk tradition to express my personal feelings. I hadn’t yet developed a style of my own, so I used what I was already familiar with. “Sandy Grey” is portrait of a shadow, someone who eternally slips out of reach. That’s the essence of the song. Like all folk songs, it’s based on a universal character. It’s not meant to be biographically accurate.

Nick never played any of his own songs for me. Based on the “Aix Tape” – a recording he made in April or May most of which is included in the FAMILY TREE album – he was just beginning to write his own songs. The first two were probably “Strange Meeting II” and “Leaving Me Behind.” The latter is his first attempt to “float” a vocal melody over an intricate guitar part – something that will be characteristic of his later songs.

Also on the tape is a recording of my song “Been Smoking Too Long.” He seemed to enjoy the song and it allowed him to show off his great blues guitar skills.

After Aix, I lost touch with Nick. I first went to London where I met John Martyn who was recording his first album. John and I would play songs for each other for hours. He liked “Sandy Grey” and decided to put it on his album. Since he hadn’t met Nick yet – and it never occurred to me that he would – I didn’t tell him about the elusive character who inspired it.

Back in California and struggling to get a foot in the door of the music business, I found Nick’s first album, FIVE LEAVES LEFT. I thought about writing to him to tell him how much I liked it. But I didn’t. My turn to slip away.

Years later, when I finally heard his home recording of “Been Smoking Too Long,” I discovered I finally had something of him that didn’t melt away. It is a thing I hold onto with much love.

Recordings, Lyrics, and Chords

I’ve recorded “Sandy Grey” a number of times over the years. Just for fun, here’s one recorded in late 1967 and the other 40 years later for my album WATER FALLS DOWN.

Sandy Grey Home Demo, 1967

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Sandy Grey, 2007. Video dedicated to John Martyn.

Sandy Grey – Lyrics

Words & Music by Robin Frederick

Oh Sandy Grey, are you going away
Leave me a message before parting
Time has changed you
And the things that pained you
Are the things you think of as you’re starting

Oh Sandy Grey, it’s only this I pray
That you might stay here one more day in laughter
Won’t you hang around and hold me
Repeat all the lies you told me
Do your rambling after

Oh Sandy Grey, don’t leave me just today
Don’t think on the road you’ll be going
Think of all the time
And the days we’ve had to mind
Of the future there’s no way of knowing

Oh Sandy Grey, I thought I heard you say
You ain’t heard one word that I’ve been speaking
There’s no use in tryin’
You’re escaping from my mind
And I’ll never see the road you’re seeking.

Oh Sandy Grey, are you going away
Leave me a message before parting
Time has changed you
And the things that pained you
Are the things you think of as you’re starting.

CHORDS (original version): The intro is a G chord alternating with a Gsus4/C. The rest of the chords are…

| C | G | F | C |

| C | G | Dm | Dm |

| C | G/B | Am | Am |

| F | F | G | G |

© 1967 Robin Frederick. (ascap)

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Robin Frederick is a professional songwriter, music producer and recording artist. Nick Drake’s recording of her song Been Smoking Too Long appears on the FAMILY TREE album. She is also a contributor to the album notes in the re-release of the FRUIT TREE box set and FAMILY TREE CD.

Over her 35 years in the music industry, Robin has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records , Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.”

Robin’s books are used to teach songwriting at top universities and schools in the U.S. They’re fun to read and filled with practical, real world information. Buy them at Amazon.com…

Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting
Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV