Archie Fisher - folk legend's tribute celebrates the legacy of his famous pupil
Archie Fisher was playing a gig in Cardiff a few weeks ago when three young Bert Jansch aficionados turned up to hear the man who taught Jansch to play the guitar.
Speaking to them between songs Fisher made sure they realised that this claim to fame wasn’t quite as accurate as they thought it was.
“I did show Bert how to play some things I was playing,” says Fisher who, if not the man who taught Bert Jansch to play guitar, remains a hugely significant figure in the story of the Scottish folk music scene. “But I was only an influence on him in so far as I had a guitar as well. He’d watch me playing and ask me how I played certain progressions and chords but he did that with other people, too. Somebody once called him a pick-pocket guitarist and I’m not sure that’s fair. He just seemed to absorb things by osmosis.”
As the 1960s dawned the folk scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where Jansch had been born in November 1943 before the family moved to West Pilton in Edinburgh three months later, were coming alive with possibilities. American music – blues, political songs and Appalachian banjo tunes – had filtered through via performers such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Weavers and the like, and an awareness of the Scottish tradition had grown and regenerated, fostered in no small part by the 1951 Edinburgh Peoples Festival Ceilidh, which introduced ballads and Gaelic songs to an unsuspecting audience.
Fisher was among the first to merge these transatlantic strands, earning a reputation as a very accomplished guitar picker as well as a clear interpreter of narrative songs. The Edinburgh hub for the activity that this folk music revival inspired was the Howff, opposite St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile, and when the man who opened it, Roy Guest, installed his girlfriend, Jill Doyle, and Fisher as guitar teachers, it became a natural magnet for a teenaged guitar obsessive such as Jansch.
Doyle had the distinction of being the sister of the great acoustic guitar innovator Davey Graham, although she didn’t have her brother’s questing appetite for music or indeed his startling ability. So when Jansch very quickly exhausted her knowledge, Fisher took over.
“I remember this lad coming in with a borrowed guitar,” says Fisher. “I think his own guitar had been stolen. Pretty soon he was living in the Howff, where there were quite a few interesting characters to be found. One of them was Len Partridge, who had the first 12-string guitar we ever saw and who I’m pretty sure taught Bert Come Back Baby Blues.”
Partridge had also contributed to the writing of Hey Joe, when he and an American guitarist called Bill Roberts got together in Bunjies, a coffee bar in Old Fishmarket Close in the 1950s, but he wasn’t really cut out for the professional music scene. Not that Jansch seemed to be either, as Fisher remembers.
“Bert was very quiet,” he says. “We didn’t get to know much about him and it really was the case that the guitar was an extension of his personality. He expressed himself through his playing and the songs and the guitar playing became part of the same thing. He wasn’t one for telling jokes or stories back then and that never really changed but he could be mesmerising. I remember one night at Clive’s Incredible Club [the Glasgow hatching ground for the Incredible String Band] when Bert sat and improvised onstage for forty-five minutes. He’d sing a couple of verses of a song then go into a riff and develop it into another song. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone do that.”
When Jansch moved to London, eventually to form The Pentangle and to become an influence on players including Jimmy Page, who appropriated Jansch’s arrangement of Blackwaterside, and Neil Young, who covered Jansch’s Needle of Death but without capturing the original’s singular guitar accompaniment, Fisher would bump into him now and again. He was always struck by the evolution in Jansch’s character each time.
“A few years ago Bert, John Renbourn and I had a curry together and I remembered the first time Bert ever ate a curry in the first curry house near Glasgow University,” says Fisher. “He wasn’t impressed and asked why they had to spoil a good stew by adding all these spices. Of course, he went on to become the great curry connoisseur.”
The music Fisher will play at the first instalment of Celtic Connections’ Jansch tribute, Bert Inspired, will reflect the pair’s two-way exchange and will include songs such as Reynardine, which Jansch learned from Fisher, and something Fisher calls Agnes’s Sister.
The latter is a continuation of various evolutions of Davey Graham’s Anji, the acoustic guitar picker’s rite of passage that Fisher has heard played on the bagpipes as Angus, as an Italian mandolin tune called Angela, and on an out of tune guitar as Agnes.
“Davey wrote that piece but Bert really took it somewhere else,” says Fisher, “and that, in many ways, sums up his musicianship and talent.”
From The Herald, January 29, 2016