Bert Jansch: Guitarist whose style influenced his peers across five decades

Sunday 23 October 2011 18:53

Bert Jansch was a musician whose reputation went before him. Guitarists heard about him on the grapevine and checked him out. He was required listening for anybody interested in any way in the sounds a guitar can make. What singled him out was the clarity with which he shredded the rule books. His main importance and influence lay in his approach to the guitar, but what was also vital was how he went deep when addressing supposedly taboo subject matter in song.

He made astonishing stylistic leaps with his first three solo albums released in a burst between 1965 and 1966, and then with his 1966 album Bert & John with John Renbourn. That partnership morphed naturally into the folk-jazz group Pentangle in 1967. And that only includes his creative outpourings in one decade.

Over the course of his career – one that saw Pentangle's original line-up perform this July and August – he touched untold numbers of musicians across the globe and the generations. A handful of names might include Anne Briggs, Bernard Butler, Billy Connolly (anchor man for the BBC Jansch documentary Acoustic Routes), Pete Doherty, Jerry Garcia, Johnny Marr, Beth Orton, Jimmy Page and Neil Young. On the back of the Los Angeles-based Buffalo Springfield's second LP Buffalo Springfield Again (1967), Jansch was famously name-checked as an influence. In a gesture of admiration and extraordinary fellow-feeling, Young had him open for three North American tours in 2010-2011.

Arguably, four musicians, each with a very different, individual style, alchemised the development of the now worldwide recognised, distinctively British style of acoustic guitar playing: Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones and Davey Graham. In their different ways, each defined, added and shared something that was theirs and theirs alone. Jansch's contribution came from being such a highly instinctual musician. Playing live, he could be deliciously unorthodox. A "straightforward" 12-bar blues might resonate with 11 - and/or 13-bar lengths.

When he started out performing professionally, he was so poor that he regularly had to borrow a guitar at a gig. It was noted, to their owners' bemusement, that he could get his sound out of even a borrowed guitar. The Glasgow-based folksinger and broadcaster Archie Fisher said it was a case of "Lock up your guitars and your daughters." Jansch was an absolute charmer, made for bringing out the mothering instinct in women of all ages.

For Colin Harper's definitive biography, Dazzling Stranger – Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (2000), I gave him an unpublished quote from a 1992 interview with Ma (Morag) Fisher. She explained that, of all the musicians that crossed the family threshold in Glasgow, her "own favourite was Bert Jansch. He was the one, really. He was one of the family. Some folk thought he was Archie's brother. He couldn't have had a better brother than Bert."

Bert Jansch came to people's attention on the British folk scene with his first, self-titled LP in 1965. When Bert Jansch appeared, it had validation: its credits included Bill Leader as its recordist and Brian Shuel as its cover image photographer. Shuel's stark, monochrome "intense young man" image defines the period's folk cool.

Yet initially Leader hawked his tapes around to no avail. In 1965, even though it showed that Jansch had mastered Davey Graham's finger-busting "Angie", Jansch's heroin threnody "Needle of Death" was extraordinarily dark fare. The next song to come close to its shock value was Lou Reed's "Heroin" on The Velvet Underground & Nico two years later. Its courage inspired Young's "Needle And The Damage Done" on 1972's Harvest, a morbid warning arising from helplessly watching the decline and demise of his addicted band-mate, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten.

Glad to get the validation of an LP release, Jansch sold the album outright to Nat Joseph of Transatlantic Records for a seemingly derisory £100. Jansch and I touched on this during his last major interview, in the July/August 2011 issue of R2 magazine. He was phlegmatic; in 1965 that sum had felt like an enormous sum for a man who had been hitch-hiking to gigs and borrowing a guitar. It taught him the lesson of keeping a tight grip on his copyrights. And without "Needle of Death" how would Neil Young have heard him?

Jansch's musicianship – a body of work exquisitely defined by Jack Orion (1966), the wholly instrumental Avocet (1978/1979), The Ornament Tree (1990) and Crimson Moon (2000) – epitomised the staying power of the British folk scene. He saw his material covered by Donovan and warped by Led Zeppelin ("Black Mountain Side" from their debut LP is out of Jack Orion's "Black Water Side", itself learned from Anne Briggs), and he had left behind a legacy of collaborations with Briggs.

He was grateful to have survived his wildest years. One concert at the Half Moon in Putney with his band sticks out, when Conundrum's mandocellist Martin Jenkins grabbed his shirt, preventing him pitching headfirst into the audience. Later, Peter Doherty sang "Needle of Death" with him. When he recounted that, there was an unutterable, old-uncle sadness born of experience in his eyes.

In most company, Jansch kept his own counsel and was never the effusive or soul-bearing kind. Although we knew each other professionally for four decades, it was only after the death of his son Richard's mother, Gill Cook in 2006 that he began to open up to me, I judged, slightly. After Richard's death in 2008 he opened up still further. Even then it took visiting him and his wife Loren with Annie Briggs for him seemingly, at least, to be at ease. This March, the two of them hunkered down in his garden recording studio, sharing ideas and playing together. The discussed duo project focussing on traditional folk-songs would have been, to say the least, historic. He was bursting with ideas and listening to his Neil Young tour recordings. He talked about a release including "It Ain't Right" ("basically a song about me and Loren") and one ("a song that I wrote about doing a couple of gigs with Pete Doherty") with a title he was wavering about.

Born the youngest of three children, after siblings Charlie and Mary, his father, Herbert, remained a shadowy figure throughout his life. He had deserted his wife Margaret and family in 1949. Bert told me he had no memory of his mother even once talking about him. What he "knew" came from his siblings. Thanks to Alex May, my editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, this spring we finally fitted another piece into the family jigsaw. His father had remarried and had died in 1970, ending years of speculation and false reports. Bert's cool melted away.

Ken Hunt

Herbert Jansch, musician, singer and composer: born Springburn, Glasgow 3 November 1943; married 1963 Lynda Campbell, 1968 Heather Sewell, 1999 Loren Auerbach; partner to Gill Cook (died 2006; one son, deceased); died London 5 October 2011.

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