John Renbourn, who has died aged suddenly at the age of seventy, was one of a coterie of guitarists who took acoustic guitar playing to new levels of skill in the 1960s and drawing on sources as diverse as early music, blues, jazz and traditional music from the British Isles and across the world, he continued to create music that had a sense of history and yet always sounded freshly minted right to the end.
Best known as a founder of the successful folk-jazz crossover group the Pentangle, he appeared with them on major stages including Carnegie Hall, New York and the Newport Folk Festival during their first incarnation and returned with the original line-up – featuring Glasgow-born guitarist Bert Jansch, singer Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox – on a triumphant tour in 2008 as Jansch, who died in 2011, joked “while we can still do it properly.”
Born in London in 1944, Renbourn was just a child when his father was killed in action during World War ll. His mother played piano and an uncle, who was also a priest, played cello and there were regular music sessions at home which John joined in on when he too took up the piano at the age of eight. At school in Guildford, where the family moved when his mother remarried, Renbourn took lessons in harmony and counterpoint and became interested in early music, English literature and medieval history, all of which continued to inform his music.
It was when he heard American folk/blues for the first time in his teens, including the spirituals of Josh White, however, that he knew where his future lay. He took up guitar and hitched through France and Spain, encountering guitar pioneers Wizz Jones and Davey Graham, and having returned home to attend Kingston Art School he went on to become a respected figure on the London folk scene, playing at folk hot spots such as Les Cousins and the Troubadour and forming a duo with the African-American singer Dorris Henderson.
His meeting with Jansch in 1965 produced the seminal Bert & John album and although they continued to record individually and Renbourn kept working with Henderson, this eventually led to the duo getting together with McShee, Thompson and Cox on informal Sunday night sessions at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road. They called themselves the Pentangle, a reference to Renbourn’s fascination with the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the pentangle being a device on Sir Gawain’s shield) and gave their first official performance at the Royal Festival Hall, a sold-out concert that was matched by strong sales for their first two albums, The Pentangle and Sweet Child.
With their third album, Basket of Light, released in 1969, which coincided with their contribution of the theme song and incidental music to the popular television series Take Three Girls, the group became a chart success and embarked on a schedule of international touring and recording that led exhaustion and the group going their separate ways.
In between his Pentangle commitments, Renbourn had somehow found time to record the solo albums The Lady and the Unicorn and Faro Annie, publish his first book of compositions and play solo concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Paris Olympia. His workload took its toll on his first marriage, however. He moved to South Devon and as well as continuing to record and tour widely with the John Renbourn Group and fellow guitarist Stefan Grossman he became closely involved with Dartington College, first as student of composition, orchestration, Early Music and instrumental tuition and then, in 1988, as the head of the first course in England to offer steel string guitar at degree level.
In the 1990s Renbourn teamed up with Incredible String Band founder Robin Williamson in a long-running partnership. He split up with his second wife, Jo, moved briefly to San Francisco, where he worked on the Complete Anthology of Medieval and Renaissance Music for the Guitar, and settled in Hawick where in between jetting off to give concerts and guitar workshops and seminars all over the world he worked on further guitar books and produced knowledgeable magazine articles.
Rumours of his retirement from performing would materialise occasionally but were consistently proved untrue by events such as the premier of his commissioned Lochbhraoin Suite at the inaugural Ullapool International Guitar Festival in 2000, his return with the Pentangle following their Lifetime Achievement recognition at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2007 and his teaming up with Wizz Jones, with whom Renbourn was due to play on the Renfrew Ferry in Glasgow, one of his favourite venues, on Wednesday evening. When he failed to appear and respond to phone calls the police were alerted and found him dead at his home in Hawick.
His death brings to an end the remarkably productive life of a musician who always played as if releasing a vast reservoir of knowledge, skill and above all musicality, music seemingly pouring from him through his guitar. He is survived by his daughter Jessie and sons Joel, Ben and Jake.
John Renbourn, born August 8, 1944; died March 25, 2015.
From The Herald, March 27, 2015.