Bert Jansch - the reluctant hero


Bert Jansch tours haven’t, as yet, been added to Edinburgh’s range of visitor attractions. But if some enterprising soul wanted to point out key Jansch locations, in the style of the Rebus tours, say, there are plenty within a manageable walk.


There’s 369 High Street, opposite St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, which housed the Howff folk club where the Glasgow-born Jansch saw a real, live performing guitarist in the flesh – Hamish Imlach – for the first time.


And a few minutes walk away, taking in sundry bars and old haunts from the 1960s, there’s Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the former Empire cinema, where Jansch attended his first concert by a real, live performing guitarist, skiffle king Lonnie Donegan.


The distinction between ‘seeing’ and ‘attending’ is Jansch’s own. Because such was the distance between the young Bert’s seat in the Empire’s gods and the stage, and so loud the screaming from the excited audience, that he neither saw nor heard Donegan. 


It didn’t really matter in the end because by then, aged twelve, Jansch was already in love with the guitar and was set on a road destined to win him a list of devotees that would make the potential celebrity uptake of these Bert Jansch tours quite considerable.


Neil Young and Jimmy Page are long-standing fans whose acknowledgement of Jansch’s influence on their own guitar playing, this quiet, retiring man finds flattering. Even more touching, though, is the continuing stream of younger musicians who are Jansch fans.


Singer-songwriter Beth Orton and nu-folk star Devendra Banhart are two of the latest to profess their admiration and both feature on Jansch’s imminent album, The Black Swan.


"Having the younger generation wanting to be involved with my music is a side of this business that I really love," says Jansch. "They have such great enthusiasm for all things and to them, everything’s new and fresh whereas to me the songs they enthuse about, well, it all seems so long ago. So it’s lovely to know that they find value in things that I’ve forgotten about or discarded – or tried to discard."


One of these ‘things’ is Jansch’s Needle of Death. Written over forty years ago for a friend who was a heroin addict, it’s a song that’s never lost its currency.


"That may be true but I never liked that song," says Jansch, who refuses to play it now. "It wasn’t the sentiment, it was a technical thing. I always felt it could have been better. But then, I’ve always thought that everything could have been better, although I suppose if I’d sat and tried to perfect everything, I’d never have released twenty-odd albums."


Although he has a studio in his house these days and can record whenever he’s in the mood, Jansch finds the recording process a strain. He far prefers playing concerts where the music is instant and he can play without thinking too much about the end product. That way, he says, the music flows much more naturally.


Just sitting playing guitar, whether to an audience or to himself, has been Jansch’s way of life since he finally got hold of his first instrument at the age of seventeen. Even today, his guitar is seldom more than two feet away.


"I remember the first time I saw a guitar was when our teacher brought one in to show the class at primary school," he says. "Guitars were quite exotic items in those days – this would have been the early 1950s – and I was instantly hooked. I even tried making them but eventually, when I was still at school, I bought a guitar, and it was the wrong kind. It was a cello guitar and when I took it to the folk club, they said, nah, you want one of these. So I had to go back to the shop and exchange it."


As everyone who remembers him from the early 1960s seems to confirm, Jansch and that guitar were inseparable. Life in various Edinburgh flats played out to a soundtrack of Jansch practising, practising, practising.


Within weeks of starting to play he was impressing even his own heroes, including Brownie McGhee of the famous blues partnership with blind harmonica player Sonny Terry. When he fetched up in London and recorded his first album, Bert Jansch, singing and playing into microphones rigged up in a friend’s kitchen, his innovative style was fully formed and his influence about to take hold on legions of guitar pickers.


"The thing I loved about those early days is that they were real voyages of discovery," he says. "There was really only the jazz scene where there was any kind of musical spark. That came to the folk scene later but all we got from the BBC was this very watered down family entertainment. We had to go out and find new and exciting music for ourselves and when you found something like Big Bill Broonzy or Brownie McGhee, it was a complete new world."


The supermarket style of record shops, where everything is laid out in folk, blues, jazz and pop sections, has taken a certain amount of the mystique out of music, he says.


"I’m not saying that there’s no new music to discover, because there is," he says. "There’s so much stuff out there that I don’t think anybody knows how much of it there really is. But I’m glad I was born when I was born because I got a chance to see and meet some of the people who influenced me."


Now, although he’s too modest to admit it, Jansch is performing that same role of passing on the music to the current generation as his heroes did for his own.


From The Herald, August 2006



Bert Jansch RIP


Bert Jansch, who has died after a long illness, was one of the most influential guitarists of the past fifty years. Although he concentrated on his own intricate but naturally rolling acoustic folk-blues style, he had a constituency of fans that extended into the major rock arena.


Neil Young, who invited Jansch to open his concerts on his summer tour of the US last year, famously considered Jansch to be the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin openly borrowed Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional song Blackwaterside, which appeared on the band’s first album as Black Mountain Side.


It wasn’t just musicians of his own generation who revered Jansch; Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler, heroes of the modern era, achieved long-time ambitions when they worked on Jansch’s more recent albums including Crimson Moon, and singer-songwriter Beth Orton and nu-folk hero Devandra Banhart acknowledged that they were in hallowed company when they appeared on Jansch’s 2006 album, The Black Swan.


Not that you’d find the Glasgow-born Jansch crowing about his high profile admirers, even if one of his last songs, Duckin’ and Divin’, was inspired by a night out with Pete Doherty. In conversation he always appeared genuinely surprised that his music had affected these people and as more than one agent and record company executive has remarked, he seemed totally unimpressed by the idea that if he’d done certain things at certain times, he might have been much more commercially successful.


He may well have been put off stardom when he went to his first ever gig, Lonnie Donegan at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh, and neither saw nor heard the skiffle hero due to the audience’s – he felt – overenthusiastic response. By this time, aged twelve, Jansch had been trying unsuccessfully to build his own guitars for more than half his young life, using sheets of hardboard and whatever else came to hand.


A guitar kit he was given for Christmas around the same time as the Donegan experience proved more successful and having gone to piano lessons for six months, he knew about scales and keys. As was typical with the cheaper guitars of the time, though, the strings were so far off the fretboard that he could only hold down one chord: D major. Finally, having left Leith Academy at sixteen to work as an apprentice nurseryman, on a princely three pounds a week, he was able to buy a proper guitar, only to choose the wrong kind, a Hofner cello model that would shortly have to be exchanged for something more suitable.


The reason for this realisation was an EP he’d come across by blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, whom Jansch tried to imitate. There was also his discovery, in 1960, of a club on Edinburgh’s High Street, The Howff, where the folk singers and musicians of the day gathered and performed, and guitar lessons were available. Among the first people Jansch met there was Brownie McGhee, the guitar playing partner of blind blues harmonica player Sonny Terry.


Jansch watched McGhee at close quarters, asked him to show him something again and by all accounts played it back to McGhee, who was dumbstruck to discover that this teenager had been playing guitar for only six weeks. Having left home after giving up both his apprenticeship and a job with a grocer, Jansch apparently slept in the Howff and worked on his guitar playing by day. With his unkempt appearance, which wouldn’t change much over the years, he was described as looking like an unmade bed. It was a look that attracted his fair share of female attention and as hearts were broken, songs that would appear on Jansch’s eponymous first album began to form.


Before this, however, there was the discovery of guitar prophet Davey Graham, whose guitar pickers’ rite of passage, Anji, became a staple of Jansch’s repertoire, and the allure of hitch-hiking to France, Spain and North Africa. Arriving back in the UK, Jansch started to capture attention in London’s folk pubs and clubs. He fell in with singer Anne Briggs, whose knowledge of folksongs spurred Jansch’s folk-blues adaptations of traditional ballads, and his friendship with fellow guitarist John Renbourn spawned a duo that grew into the original line-up of Pentangle.


Originally convened as a loose jamming vehicle, meeting on Sunday nights in the Horseshoe Hotel in Tottenham Court Road in 1967, Pentangle brought together Jansch and Renbourn’s acoustic experiments with a jazz rhythm section, Danny Thompson (bass) and Terry Cox (drums), and Jacqui McShee’s bell-clear singing and became very popular very quickly. Their third album, Basket of Light, many of whose tracks had soundtracked the popular television drama Take Three Girls, made the top ten and with a virtually non-stop world touring schedule, they became physically drained and imploded in 1973.


Thereafter Jansch would return to the Pentangle format from time to time, with only McShee from the original group, as well as continuing a solo career that promised major commercial breakthroughs – much was expected of his LA Turnaround album, which was produced by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees – but was interrupted by his heavy drinking and natural diffidence. His catalogue of songs such as the harrowingly brilliant Needle of Death, however, continued to attract new listeners and makers of documentaries such as Acoustic Routes, which allowed Jansch to meet up with Brownie McGhee again in 1992, were fascinated by his story.


His appearance on Later … with Jools Holland, during which he performed the title track of his 1996 album, When the Circus Comes to Town, with the host on piano and Blackwaterside with Irish folk band Altan, rekindled interest that led to a new record deal and a final decade that saw Jansch achieve something closer to the recognition his pioneering work deserved. His song Black Cat Blues even made it onto the soundtrack of the successful film Calendar Girls. His Edinburgh Fringe appearances saw queues forming round the block and a reformed Pentangle defied all fears on its 2008 UK tour by playing as if the previous thirty-five years had never happened.


Bert Jansch, musician, born November 3, 1943; died October 5, 2011.


From The Herald, October 6, 2011.


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