Bert Jansch - Biography
Scottish singer/guitarist Bert Jansch is one of the most influential guitarists and songwriters from the early 60s London-based folk and acoustic blues scene. His sometimes aggressive, sometimes reflective but always sublime guitar playing, as well as his songwriting and warm Scottish burr of a voice, have influenced several generations of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. He announced himself to the world with his ground-breaking album Bert Jansch (1965 Transatlantic). However, he was known already in the folk and guitar playing communities of London as a guitarist and songwriter non-pareil.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1943, Jansch (pronounced with a “j” rather than a “y” sound) took up the acoustic guitar as a teenager. He began playing in folk clubs, where he absorbed the music of American musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, as well as the work of the 50s-era British folk scene, including Archie Fisher, The Collins Sisters and Annie Briggs. In his late teens and early 20s, Jansch spent long periods of time vagabonding and busking his way through Europe.
He returned to London, where he recorded his first LP (Bert Jansch, 1965 Transttlantic). Recorded on a miniscule budget in a friend’s kitchen, the record revealed a particularly adept and wide-ranging guitar style based in folk and blues and, unusual for a beginning folk musician, mostly original compositions. The guitar playing of his contemporary Davey Graham was an obvious influence, although Graham was not really a songwriter and only an occasional singer. Jansch’s songs were as startlingly original as his guitar playing, ranging from love songs to traditional ballads and protest songs such as “Do You Hear Me Now?,” an anti-atomic bomb piece later covered by Donovan. Donovan, in fact, was an early acolyte of Jansch, and wrote and recorded a tribute to Jansch entitled “Bert’s Blues.” Likewise, Jansch was a major influence on Nick Drake’s guitar playing, and the bootleg Tamworth-in-Arden contains Drake covers of two Jansch songs, “Strolling Down the Highway” and “Courting Blues,” both from Jansch’s first LP. Interspersed among the songs were short mood pieces, sketches in sound with an almost abstract feel to them — somewhat reminiscent of the free-form pieces recorded by his American near-contemporary John Fahey.
Jansch followed the first LP with It Don’t Bother Me (1965 Translantic), a collection again comprised of mostly original songs, ranging from the traditional (“900 Miles”) to the whimsical (“A Man I’d Rather Be”). Jansch’s “Anti-Apartheid” stands out as one of, it not the, earliest protest songs against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The record was also notable for the participation of guitarist John Renbourn, and included his composition “Lucky Thirteen.” The pairing was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between the two. Indeed, Jansch’s third LP, Jack Orion, retreated from original compositions in favor of the team of Renbourn and Jansch tackling a number of English folk classics. Renbourn’s influence added an element of jazz to their interpretations, which stood out amid the more traditional approaches to this sort of material. The two then recorded a proper LP of duets entitled Bert and John (1966 Transatlantic). The songs were reportedly ad-hoc duets given names after the fact; surprising especially in light of the melodicism and engaging interplay between the two musicians. The only non-original on the LP was a moody take on Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.”
Shortly after this record (which also featured Jansch’s banjo playing for the first time) the two joined forces with bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox and folksinger Jacqui McShee. This band, named Pentangle, quickly earned a reputation for outstanding musicianship. Also, unlike their neo-traditionalist contemporaries Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, they possessed an eclectic repertoire that could range from folk standards to jazz to covers of such American soul bands as Booker T. and the MGs. With former Kinks producer Shel Talmy at the helm, Pentangle released their first three and probably best LPs between 1968 and 1969. After this period their output slowed down considerably, although they have continued to release CDs as recently as the 2005 compilation Feoffee’s Lands (2005 Castle).
Jansch, perhaps exhausted by his busy schedule of touring and recording, withdrew from the music scene for a few years during which he tried his hand at farming. 1973’s Moonshine (1973 Reprise) featured a large cast of backing musicians and singers, including Bowie and T-Rex producer Tony Visconti on bass and former Apple Record’s one-hit wonder Mary Hopkins singing lead on one tune. 1974 saw him venturing out to the West Coast of the US for the country-influenced LA Turnaround (1974 Charisma) which featured former Burrito Brother steel player Byron Berline as well as the guitar of former Monkee Mike Nesmith, who also produced the session. Santa Barbara Honeymoon (1975 Charisma) saw Jansch continuing to broaden his musical palette, with the addition of synthesizer and steel drums.
Jansch countered the rise of punk and New Wave music with release of A Rare Conundrum (1977 Charisma), which included Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers; the band toured and recorded, offering sometimes gorgeous and occasionally New Age-like tunes. In 1979, he released the lovely Avocet (1979 Charisma) recorded with Pentangle bassist Thompson and English finger-style guitarist Martin Jenkins on flute, mandocello and violin. The centerpiece of the LP was the 18-minute long title track, said to be based on the traditional folk song “The Cuckoo.” (All six tracks are named after various birds.) The LP was notable also for offering a rare glimpse of Jansch’s piano playing. He followed soon after with Thirteen Down (1980 Sonet)--which is listed as being recorded by The Bert Jansch Conundrum--featured the band from A Rare Conundrum, augmented by drummer Luce Langridge and, on one track, Pentangle vocalist Jacqui McShee.
Once again, possibly overwhelmed by his unrelenting touring and recording schedule, Jansch retreated to a somewhat more logical business venture — a guitar shop in London. The business was not a success and a few years later he returned to being a full-time musician. Unfortunately, his lifelong habit of heavy drinking had finally caught up with him, and at one point he came quite close to dying from the cumulative effects of his addiction. He gave up alcohol and gradually regained his health; his playing and singing had also been negatively affected by the illness and it took him some years to return to full form. He released 3 more albums before the end of the decade, although they were generally overlooked — one only released in Belgium — and by the beginning of the 90s Jansch seemed somewhat marginalized if not, like his mentor Davey Graham, completely forgotten. After the release of Sketches (1990 Hypertension) which revisited earlier material with a full band, and The Ornament Tree (1990 Run River), a large-band treatment of all traditional titles, he was silent for the next five years. Jansch also reportedly was struggling with arthritis about this period. 1995’s When the Circus Comes to Town (Cooking Vinyl) was hailed by critics as a return to form, although the quality of the songs varied and sometimes seemed close to collapsing under the weight of the arrangements and backing musicians. Toy Balloon (1998 Cooking Vinyl) was a more interesting outing, with Jansch working with jazz saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and the minimalist pedal steel player B.J. Cole, who had also worked with John Cale.
With the turn of the millennium, a new generation of musicians and fans began to discover or rediscover Jansch’s now considerably deep and long back catalog. He entered the studio with Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, and emerged with the excellent Crimson Moon (2000 Castle). A pleasing blend of Jansch originals, a few covers and a couple of traditional numbers, the album also featured the bass playing of his son Adam and backing vocals from his daughter Loren. The presence of Marr and Butler, and the attendant press coverage, led to Crimson Moon becoming one of Jansch’s most popular releases. Jansch toured in support of the album and began gaining a younger generation of fans. The followup, Edge of a Dream (2002 Sanctuary) continued along the path set by its predecessor, using a combination of old (Fairport’s Dave Swarbrick and English folkster Ralph McTell) and young (Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval as well as Bernard Butler) collaborators, Jansch even ventured into rock 'n' roll territory on the album’s title track.
By the time of his most recent album, The Black Swan (2006 Drag City), he had reached yet a third generation of musicians; this time it was the neo-folkie/hippy set that revolved around performers such as Devendra Banhart, Beth Orton and Noah Georgeson, who produced the release. The inclusion of many of these artists was both a tribute to the lasting power of Jansch’s best work, and an occasional distraction from the artist and his songs themselves — at times Jansch’s playing and singing took a backseat to the efforts of his young collaborators. Jansch has even recently been performing live with Babyshambles’ crack casualty Pete Doherty, including an ironic duet on Jansch’s elegiac “Needle of Death.”
As Jansch approaches a half-century of performing and recording he continues to inspire and influence generations of musicians and fans. As noted earlier, Donovan was an early fan and booster, as was the doomed singer songwriter Nick Drake. Neil Young has freely admitted lifting the melody from Jansch’s perhaps best-known original composition “The Needle of Death” for his own “Ambulance Blues” from On The Beach (1974 Reprise). Young, who has also called Jansch the “Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar” finally appeared with his hero at his Bridge Benefit show in 2006. Likewise, Jimmy Page lifted wholesale Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional song “Blackwaterside” for Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side,” although he characteristically neglected to give Jansch credit. Similarly, Bob Dylan lifted the Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Nottamun Town” (from Jack Orion) for his classic “Masters of War.”
As Jansch has grown older he seems to have become more focused on songwriting, and he has taken to a less aggressive and technical guitar playing style in favor of a more traditional accompaniment. He is fortunate enough to be a fine songwriter whose fans do not appear too dismayed at the relative lack of pyrotechnic guitar playing in his more recent releases and live appearances. His influence on the English 60s folk scene is inestimable; echoes of his singing and playing are so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible. Suffice to say that every English folk guitarist, from Martin Carthy to Richard Thompson, from Martin Jenkins to Simon Nicol (whose Fairport Convention track “End of a Holiday” could have come off any early Jansch album) , owes a debt to Jansch in both their singing and guitar playing. Though Jansch has never experienced a hit single or indeed much chart success at all, it is difficult to think of another musician of his generation that has had more lasting influence on so many successive generations of musicians. For close to fifty years, Jansch has explored myriad musics and collaborated with a vast range of musicians from many genres and generations, while always remaining at the heart of it a singer/guitarist with a song to sing.
Jansch passed away after a long battle with cancer in the autumn of 2011. A number of his albums continue to be re-discovered and re-issued. Heartbreak was re-released in a deluxe edition in late 2012.