North Star Grassman and the Ravens [S.Denny]
Band: Crash Wisdom
First Live Performance: 5/12/94
Last Live Performance: 11/22/98 [Sandy Denny tribute]
They stood upon the deck
As the ship went out to sea.
The wind it took the sails
And left the land a memory.
All upon the shore for
To wonder why the sailor goes.
All to close their eyes
And wonder what the sailor knows.
That is you to them,
That is how they think you are.
Never on the land,
But sailing by the North Star.
To the tower and to the ravens
And the tale that hopes they’ll never leave.
What if they should go?
We always dread to think of them.
I wonder if they flew one day
And no-one ever knew they’d gone
To circle over ships at sea,
Claiming yet another son.
That is you to me,
That is where I think you are.
Never on the land,
But gone to find the North Star.
The title track of Sandy Denny’s 1971 (highly recommended) debut solo album, North Star Grassman and the Ravens ranks as one of her most enigmatic and haunting songs. While sharing common themes with other Denny songs such as It’ll Take A Long Time in referring to sailors and ships lost at sea, North Star takes this motif and combines it with British mythology (the myth if the ravens leave the Tower of London, the country would soon fall*) and the mysterious figure of the ‘grassman’, whose fate upon the seas is left uncertain. [For a more detailed interpretation, see http://sandydenny.blogspot.com/2007/04/identifying-grassman.html]
As mentioned in several interviews and concert recordings, Denny has been among Michael’s biggest musical influences for her entire career, although ‘North Star’ is her first known Denny cover (The other is a 1998 cover of Fotheringay’s ‘Banks of the Nile’). In comparison to the original recording, the Crash Wisdom cover version keeps the basic feel of the song while radically changing its arrangement to more prominently feature guitar over piano and flute organ, as seen in Michael’s rhythm playing and John Thomas’s solo. The only time this song has been performed live by Michael outside of CW was in a 1998 all-star Sandy Denny tribute concert, in which the arrangement much more closely resembles the original recording.
* Incidentally, the myth itself is much more recent than often imagined, originating in the nineteenth century. The earliest reference to the ravens and the Tower in fact dates to 1895.
Quotes: “When I was seventeen, a songwriter named Sandy Denny was my hero. It took me a, well I’m not gonna say how many years because then you’d know how old I am, but it took me a long time to get the nerve to do one of her songs.” – Michael Steele, Crash Wisdom, 5/12/94 concert banter.