From his earliest days in the folk clubs of Edinburgh—where he learned from greats like Davey Graham, Martin Carthy and Ann Briggs—to his move to London, Bert Jansch (1943-2011) was always exploring new territory on the acoustic guitar. This search culiminated in Pentangle, his brilliant, longtime quintet which combined deep folk influences with the improvisational spirit of jazz and the drive of rock ‘n’ roll and then, later, on his solo recordings. I was lucky enough to see Jansch perform and speak with him in the months before his death.
Though it seems impossible to believe, nearly ten years have passed since the otherworldly guitarist Bert Jansch died after a long battle with cancer. Likened by no less a guitar slinger than Neil Young to “Jimi Hendrix on the acoustic guitar,” Jansch and his music was embraced by more than the 1960s generation from which he emerged. He has, in fact, been cited as a major influence by the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Donovan, as well as Johnny Marr, Joanna Newsom, Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart.
“It Don’t Bother Me”-Bert Jansch with Johnny Marr, live performance, 2003:
The death of Bert Jansch was like the surprise ending to one of those old songs he treasured. Earlier in the year (2011), he had completed a well-received mini-tour of the northeastern U.S. after having had to cut short a major shared-bill solo acoustic “Twisted Road” tour with Neil Young in the fall of 2010 for (at the time) unspecified health reasons. He’d also performed a handful of reunion concerts with his old band The Pentangle (aka Pentangle), including one at the Glastonbury Festival and—what proved to be his final concert appearance—a Pentangle gig on Aug. 1, 2011, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the venue where the quintet had, more than 40 years earlier, recorded the live cuts for their groundbreaking double-album Sweet Child.
I was lucky enough to catch one of the final gigs on Jansch’s 2010-11 winter tour of the U.S. Though he didn’t reconnect with Neil Young in person, he did in spirit. Not only was Pegi Young (Neil’s then wife who has since also died from the cursed cancer) the opener on Jansch’s tour, her band included Rick Rosas, Neil’s longtime collaborator who also played bass in a reunited Buffalo Springfield. To bring this six degrees of separation full circle, Jansch was listed by the band as an influence on the back of Buffalo Springfield Again, released in 1967.
The gig I caught was held at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Ct., the nation’s oldest public cultural venue, a fitting place for a living work of art like Jansch. It was a blissfully relaxed evening of music and conversation. Jansch seemed reinvigorated, strong of voice and nimble fingered, which is why it came as a shock that he was dead just a few months later. He sang so casually, as if the music simply coursed through his body—as if he were channeling it—and he performed most of his set on an amplified acoustic 6-string guitar with minimal stops for retuning.
His facility with that battered Yamaha created such a hush in the theater that Jansch mentioned it twice between his songs. (“Thank you for being so quiet”). The normally laconic Scotsman was also relaxed enough to make witty asides and informed commentary about his set list, which offered an overview of his career. He performed nuggets like “Blackwaterside,” “Running from Home,” “It Don’t Bother Me,” “Needle of Death,” “Angie” (his interpretation of Davey Graham’s instrumental “Anji”).
He also performed two covers of songs by Jackson C. Frank (“Blues Run the Game” and “My Name is Carnival”), during which you could hear the clinking of glass beer bottles rolling on the venerable museum’s floor, which seemed fitting somehow). Jansch explained how he tried for years to bring attention to the neglected Frank, an American expatriate whose lone album was produced by Paul Simon and released on Columbia in 1965. Jansch and Frank (and Simon, for that matter) played many gigs together at folk clubs in London, most frequently at Les Cousins. After a life as tragic as anything Dickens might have concocted, Frank died in 1999.
“Blues Run The Game”-Jackson C. Frank song covered by Bert Jansch:
On a lighter note, Jansch also told a funny story about being invited to perform at a 2009 benefit by Pete Doherty, “who has been banned from touring the U.S., for some reason” (rolling his eyes in mock surprise). He defended Doherty, the profligate front man for the Libertines, as a “fantastic entertainer…he had 1,500 kids singing every word of every song along with him.” Arguably the most moving part of the evening in Hartford was Jansch’s rendition of “The Old Triangle,” written by Brendan Behan for his 1954 play TheQuare Fellow. Jansch explained how he had learned the tune, about the abolition of capital punishment in Ireland, from Dominic Behan, Brendan’s brother.
It was at that point, as if anyone were in doubt, that the audience was convinced that we were in the presence of living history. As self-effacing and shy as he could be, Jansch seemed to know anyone and everyone on the folk/blues/rock scenes in the UK from the late 1950s onward.
Though it took many years for them to actually meet—at a Bridge School benefit concert in 2009—the pairing of Bert Jansch and Neil Young was no random event. Young had long revered Jansch. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s still unsurpassed biography of Young, he confesses to having copped some of his hero’s guitar riffs for his own songs. Young told McDonough, “I always feel bad I stole the melody [to “Ambulance Blues”] from Bert Jansch. You ever heard that song ‘The Needle of Death’? I loved that melody. I didn’t realize ‘Ambulance Blues’ starts exactly the same. I knew that it sounded like something that he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realized I copped his thing. I felt really bad about that. Because here’s a guy who…I’ll never play guitar as good as this guy. Never…”
Neil Young-“Ambulance Blues”, from On The Beach album:
Jansch harbored no ill will toward Young, though he was sufficiently put out by Jimmy Page’s lifting of “Blackwaterside” (Page recorded it with Led Zeppelin, crediting himself as songwriter, as “Black Mountainside”). Nothing ever came of the lawsuit, though, as Jansch characteristically let it wash over his backside.
Bert Jansch-“The Needle of Death”:
Born in Glasgow of Austrian lineage and raised in Edinburgh, Jansch is perhaps best known for his work with Pentangle, a genre-transcending quintet built around his and John Renbourn’s intertwined acoustic lead guitars, the jazz-influenced, seamless bottom of bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox and the soaring silver-throated vocals of Jacqui McShee. Pentangle were at their peak in the years 1967-1973, though the soft-spoken Jansch was quick to note in my interview with him that the band was never really broken apart. All five members remained close friends over the years and even reunited for several extended tours in the 1980s and periodically thereafter whenever schedules permitted. In 2008, they embarked on a successful tour of the UK that recharged their collective and individual batteries.
In the meantime over the years, dating back to pre-Pentangle Edinburgh days when he shared stages and flats with friends who later formed the Incredible String Band, Jansch carved a distinguished career as a solo artist. He learned his craft literally at the feet of iconic figures like Martin Carthy, Anne Briggs and Davey Graham (taking lessons in trad-folk from Graham’s sister, Jill Doyle). Renbourn also embarked on a successful solo career, while Thompson and Cox were among the more in demand session musicians in the UK. Jansch was an inspiration to the “freak folk” community, including Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton, both of whom appeared on his 2011 album, BlackSwan (Drag City), his 23rd solo recording. The most remarkable thing about the album was that it contained original new material as good as any songs he had previously written and performed.
I spoke with Jansch by phone at his London flat just prior to his concert in Hartford.
PKM: This obviously evolved from the tour you did earlier this year with Neil Young. Can you tell me a bit about what it was like playing with Neil? Did you spend much time together off stage?
Bert Jansch: We spent some time together off stage, which was nice. I stayed to watch all of the shows that Neil did. They were pretty remarkable. They were all solo, no band. He would move from acoustic, to harmonium, to piano, to electric guitar. He got really loud for a guy playing all by himself (laughs). Each night, the shows just kept getting better and better…
PKM: Yours and Neil Young’s guitar playing seem so different at first listen. His acoustic playing is assertive and spartan but he doesn’t have a lot of technical virtuosity.
Bert Jansch: I suppose you could say the same about me.
PKM: That’s not what Neil Young says. He called you ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar’.
Bert Jansch: That’s all very nice of him, but (pauses) I really enjoy watching Neil play guitar. He has his own style.
PKM: Neil Young kind of effortlessly moves between acoustic and electric guitar in his concerts. I’ve seen him a number of times and am always astonished at how seamless the transition is for him. Did you ever try to tinker with the electric guitar or did you think it was best to let sleeping dogs lie?
Bert Jansch: As a young man I did but I never really took to it. It’s an entirely different way of looking at the guitar, a different musical road.
PKM: In what way? It would seem to me that the electric guitar would allow you to hide mistakes under a cloak of volume.
Bert Jansch: No, it’s just the opposite. The electric guitar does not hide mistakes. Once your finger hits a string, it stays there for a while, so to speak, for all to hear. It also requires an entirely different mental approach.
PKM: Much has been written about various guitarists who’ve nicked your work, some acknowledging the debt (like Donovan in “Bert’s Blues” and “House of Jansch”) and others simply committing highway robbery, like Jimmy Page. Young has said that he may have inadvertently nicked the melody of your “Needle of Death” for “Ambulance Blues”.
Bert Jansch: Ah, it was only the one opening part that he used, it’s really no problem at all with me. I never thought anything of it with Neil. In fact, when I played the Bridge School benefit last year he asked me to play with him on ‘Ambulance Blues’. He had to show me the chords and we rehearsed the song for about 10 minutes before we went on stage. The idea that he nicked anything from me for that song is, well, Neil is his own man, put it that way.
PKM: What do you recall from the very first time you performed on a tour in the United States? Would that have been as a solo artist or with Pentangle?
Bert Jansch: That was with Pentangle. Our very first gig was at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. Somehow we ended up in an arrangement with the owner there so that for the next three years, every time we played in Los Angeles it had to be at The Troubadour. So we got used to the idea of doing two shows at night and three at the weekend.
PKM: Were you on your own?
Bert Jansch: Yes, it was just us at The Troubadour, no one else on the bill. That was totally different from when we played places like the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West, where we would be on the bills with just about anyone. We did one show where it was the Grateful Dead and Sir Douglas Quintet, with us squeezed between them. And another with Canned Heat and Rhinoceros. Really interesting mixes of music and people, actually.
The Pentangle-Live at the Fillmore East, July 2, 1969,, audio only:
PKM: Those were incredible days. Sometimes I pull out old issues of underground newspapers and just look at the ads for these various clubs and marvel at the lineups that regularly appeared. Pentangle one week, Fairport Convention the next, Soft Machine after that, and so on. I just wish I had the tapes from all these different shows. Did you sense that it was hard breaking through in the U.S. or did you not pay it much attention?
Bert Jansch: I don’t think we paid it much mind. We just enjoyed ourselves. We have always enjoyed playing together. I guess we just accepted the fact of not being played on the radio.
PKM: Your music as a solo artist and the musicians in Pentangle separately, all of you, seemed to play music that evolved organically or naturally.
Bert Jansch: That was our natural way of doing things. We weren’t like the other groups in a way, musically or on the business side. We sort of acquired a manager. I don’t think any of us put much thought into that side of things. One day, we had a manager (laughs).
PKM: You and John Renbourn had been performing solo and shared a flat in London?
Bert Jansch: Right. We also put out an album together [Bert & John, in 1966] before we formed Pentangle.
“Bells”-Bert Jansch & John Renbourn filmed in 1967 in their apartment, while Jacqui McShee does the newspaper crossword puzzle:
PKM: In Pentangle there were five extremely talented individuals. How did you maintain a sort of equilibrium? Were there ego clashes?
Bert Jansch: No, there was no ego involved whatsoever. That’s in a sense why it lasted so long, six years or thereabouts.
PKM: And you still perform with some of the former members of Pentangle.
Bert Jansch: Oh yes, the band is actually still together. Two years ago, we got together and we did a tour of Britain and that was the first time since way back.
PKM: What is the status of the Pentangle back catalog? Is it all going to get the proper reissuing that it deserves?
Bert Jansch: That I’m not sure. I’ll just ask my wife [sounds of Bert asking Loren Jansch, who also served as his manager], “Is Pentangle all reissued? On which label?”. [Bert returns] Yes, on Universal. [Sighs].
PKM: I ask because Black Swan introduced you to a new audience. It’s such a brilliant, contemporary sounding record but still rooted in the rich traditions that always inspired you. Do you find people are curious about this tip of your career iceberg?
Title track from The Black Swan album:
Bert Jansch: Yes, it seems to recycle itself every five years or so. I dunno. I suppose it’s the young kids eager to search out music that they haven’t heard before, find Pentangle in their parents’ record collections and really latch on to it. It’s all good.
PKM: Doesn’t hurt to have Johnny Marr singing your praises?
Bert Jansch: Oh right, he’s fantastic. Great person, talented player.
PKM: I worked in a record store in Chapel Hill, N.C. in the 1970s and I’d put Pentangle and your solo albums on the turntable and almost inevitably people would want to buy them. The same for any number of different artists, from Roy Harper to Phil Ochs to Glenn Phillips [former guitarist for Hampton Grease Band]. I always wondered why it took me putting it on…
Bert Jansch: Word of mouth is one of the best ways of hearing stuff. They would mention what they heard at your shop to one of their friends, who would get curious, and so on. My music has always been word of mouth, I guess.
PKM: You in all likelihood crossed paths with Incredible String Band.
Bert Jansch: Well, I used to live with them, for starters (laughs). Robin [Williamson] and I are both from Edinburgh.
PKM: Does it feel good to run into some of these same people on the road, as they continue to find new audiences?
Bert Jansch: We keep in contact with each other, which is good, but I wish I saw them more on the road. In my young days, back in Edinburgh, I met Clive Palmer [a founding member of Incredible String Band] in a folk club and Robin. And the three of us for a long while used to hang out together and play a lot. We know each other very well.
PKM: Another one of my old heroes is Roy Harper, who I think you’ve played with.
Bert Jansch: Roy, yes (laughs), quite a character Roy.
PKM: He was one of my heroes growing up, a supreme individualist. He always seemed to be out of his time, in a way, but that was his charm.
Bert Jansch: I’ve never actually played or toured with Roy, but I’ve known him since the Transatlantic Records days, the very beginning. [Transatlantic is a British folk label founded in 1961 that had Jansch and Harper on its early roster, as well as the Fugs and the Humblebums]. I know him well. I wrote the sleeve notes to his first album [actually, for Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith, Harper’s second LP]. But we do know each other very well. He lives in Ireland now, near Cork.
PKM: I admire him and people like you and, say, Ray Davies, who have certain ironclad standards and have not strayed off. Were there other bands were sort of on the same circuit?
Bert Jansch: Fairport Convention came just slightly behind Pentangle. But we all knew each other so well. I knew Sandy Denny quite well when she was in London. Also, there were people like Ralph McTell. He’s pretty big over here [meaning in the UK].
PKM: It’s one thing to be big in the UK, but the big leap is to find an audience in the U.S. Like with Roy Harper. How do you translate his Britishness to an unfamiliar audience?
Bert Jansch: I would say it’s more how to translate his Yorkshire side than his British side (laughs). Roy is an amazing character.
PKM: I don’t suppose, since he was such an isolated figure, that you would have known Nick Drake.
Bert Jansch: Sadly, I didn’t ever meet Nick Drake. At one point, Danny Thompson was working with him [Thompson’s bass playing can be heard on many Drake album tracks] and I got interested in him then, but by the time I got around to listening to what he was doing, he died.
PKM: You played with Paul Simon during the year he was in London after the failure of the first Simon & Garfunkel album [Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.] He spent a year or so over there trying to make it as a solo artist. What do you remember about that time?
Bert Jansch: I remember that period of time quite well. Paul was a soloist at first. He used to come to Les Cousins folk club and he was great friends with Al Stewart, and at the same time one of my favorite American songwriters, Jackson C. Frank. Frank had put out an album which Paul had produced. And that’s how I know him. We used to do gigs together, around London. I’ve not heard from him since. He has moved on, you might say (laughs). [Producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instruments onto the acoustic album version of “Sound of Silence,” without S&G’s knowledge, re-released it as a single, and it became a number 1 hit in the U.S. When told of this, to his amazement, Simon reunited with Garfunkel].
PKM: Will we be hearing tracks from Black Swan at the upcoming gigs?
Bert Jansch: Always a selection from the latest album and then from the early days, I mix it up a bit.
PKM: The venue is an art museum, which is unusual.
Bert Jansch: It sounds nice from the description. It’ll be interesting. This whole tour will be relatively short. We had to cancel some of the dates, and it’s almost like a reschedule.
PKM: I’m glad to hear your health has improved. Are you pacing yourself on these tours?
Bert Jansch: I just take it easy.
“Black Waterside”-Bert Jansch:
Arguably, the best sampling of Bert Jansch’s core recordings can be found on the 3-CD boxed set Pentangling (Sanctuary Records, 2004), which contains an entire disc of material from his early solo albums, an entire disc of Renbourn’s solo work and a disc of their Pentangle material and serviceable liner notes by Colin Harper, author of Dazzling Stranger, a 2000 biography of Jansch. Of his early solo albums, his debut, Bert Jansch (1965), It Don’t Bother Me (1965), Jack Orion (1966) and Birthday Blues (1969) are indispensable discs. Birthday Blues was produced by Shel Talmy and features Pentangle’s Thompson and Cox. In 2009, Jansch’s most recent label (Drag City) reissued three of his hard to find solo albums, originally on the Charisma label. They are LA Turnaround, Santa Barbara Honeymoon and A Rare Conundrum. All are lost treasures that beg for rediscovery.
In 2000, the film Dreamweaver was released. This documentary about Jansch’s life and music, directed by Darrin Nightingale, featured talking heads like Roy Harper, Davey Graham (who died in 2008), Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler.