John Renbourn - Biography

By J Poet

John Renbourn is one of the Godfathers of Britain’s folk revival. He’s one of the best fingerpickers in the world and if he never did anything else but help found Pentangle, the world’s first folk/jazz band, his place in music history would be secure. He’s made more than 30 albums, both solo and with Pentangle, and all display his singular fusion of British folk, blues, jazz, medieval and classical music, along with various Arab and Eastern musical styles. He was nominated twice for Folk Grammys for Live in America (1981 Flying Fish) and Wheel of Fortune (1994 Flying Fish.) He’s been an influence on almost every British and American folk guitarist now playing, and continues to make challenging records today. In 2008, he’s approaching his 50th year of music making with no signs of slowing down.


Renbourn was born in Marylebone, London in 1944. His mother played piano and after picking up the guitar as a teen he took early music and classical guitar lessons. In the late 50s, skiffle, an acoustic pop form that borrowed from American folk, blues, bluegrass and jugband music swept England. Skiffle sent Renbourn on a journey to discover the roots of the music and he got albums by Lead Belly, Jesse Fuller, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Ramblin' Jack Elliot and tried to play in their styles. After high school he hitchhiked all over England and played with other young folkies like Mac McCloud, Gerry Lockran, Mick Softly and Wizz Jones. The great Davey Graham also influenced him.


He picked up a steel sting guitar (he had been playing classical instruments), rented space on a barge on the River Thames, and practiced for hours on end. While he studied at Kingston College of Art American R&B became a craze and he played electric guitar in an cover band called Hog Snort Rupert's Famous Porkestra. After Art School, he moved to West London and met an American blues singer, Dorris Henderson, who hired him as her backing guitarist. Henderson got a weekly gig on a TV show; Alexis Korner led the studio band and Renbourn became friendly with his bassist, Danny Thompson and his drummer, Terry Cox. He also met Bert Jansch and they clicked. They roomed together and started a writing collaboration, both instrumental pieces and songs.


Transatlantic records heard their music and recorded Bert and John, both solo and as a duo. John Renbourn (1965 Transatlantic) was a folk blues album, with a John Donne song tossed in for good measure. Bert and John


(1966 Transatlantic) introduced the so-called Folk Baroque picking that made Pentangle a force to be reckoned with on songs written by the duo and a Charlie Mingus tune “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat.” Renbourn met Jacqui MacShee and joined her band, playing jazz, blues and traditional British folk tunes. During that time he made more solo albums including Sir John Alot (1968 Transatlantic) and Lady And The Unicorn (1969 Transatlantic.)


He started jamming with Jansch and MacShee at a club called Cousins, and eventually Thompson and Cox started sitting in. They called themselves Pentangle and Renbourn pressed Transatlantic into recording them. They made two albums between Renbourn solo projects - The Pentangle (1968 Transatlantic, 1968 Reprise US) and Sweet Child (1968 Transatlantic, 1968 Reprise US). Warner picked up the Pentangle albums and the band exploded. They played the Newport Folk Festival, opened shows at The Fillmore for The Grateful Dead and for a few years were the biggest folk band in the world. Between touring and recording with Pentangle, Renbourn found time to cut Annie Faro (1971 Transatlantic).


Pentangle ran its course in 1972, but Renbourn stayed busy as a solo act and as a collaborator with other musicians. His output for the rest of the 70s included The Hermit (1976 Transatlantic, 2005 Shanachie) and The Black Balloon (1979 Transatlantic, 2005 Shanachie), A Maid in Bedlam (1977 Transatlantic, 2005 Shanachie), which was billed as The John Renbourn Group with Jacqui MacShee, and The Black Balloon (1977 Transatlantic, 1990 Shanachie). He also cut several duet albums with Stefan Grossman; a compilation of tracks from those albums was late released as Keeper Of The Vine (1999 Shanachie.)


Renbourn began playing again with MacShee in The John Renbourn Group and cut Enchanted Garden (1980 Shanachie) and Live in America (1981 Flying Fish,) nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Recording. Renbourn rejoined his Pentangle mates in 1982, but left again to go back to school and study classical music composition and orchestration. He remains and active performer to this day, but has cut back on recording. He explains his reluctance on his website: “The recording of new material has been slow on my part, not from lack of prompting from the powers that be, nor from lack of material. The problem has been how best to present it, since my musical direction has changed considerably since the old ‘folksinger’ days.”


What he does record, however, is always top notch. Keepers include John Renbourn and Stefen Grossman, The Three Kingdoms (1986 Shanachie), a collection of ragtime and blues tunes with Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight” tossed in for good measure; John Renbourn’s Ship Of Fools (1988 Flying Fish) with Maggie Boyle, Steve Tilston and Tony Roberts; The Nine Maidens (1988 Flying Fish), a solo guitar album; Wheel of Fortune (1994 Flying Fish), a Grammy Nominated live concert with Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band (they wanted to call the album Impenetrable Stringtangle); Traveler's Prayer (1999 Shanachie) and So Early in the Spring (1999 Vivid Sound.) 


Renbourn joined the most recent Pentangle reunion tour in 2008, and in 2011 he released his first recording of original material in over 13 years, entitled Palermo Snow.

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