Written by Chris Charlesworth.
With his tousled hair, ill-fitting clothes and air of forgetfulness, Bert Jansch was an unlikely guitar hero. But his influence ranged far and wide. Though he made his name in the Sixties as the most revered guitarist on the English folk scene, his tentacles spread via Donovan to The Beatles, via Paul Simon to Simon & Garfunkel, via Jimmy Page to Led Zeppelin, via Neil Young to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and via Johnny Marr to The Smiths. Nevertheless, it was with the folk ‘supergroup’ Pentangle that he made his name. Playing alongside his friend and fellow guitarist John Renbourn, Jansch recorded six albums with Pentangle up to their disbandment in 1971. He also recorded over 20 albums under his own name and several more jointly with Renbourn.
Born in Glasgow in 1943 but raised in Edinburgh, Jansch’s forebears came from Germany. He left school early, worked briefly as a gardener and, drawn to American acoustic blues, spent his first wages on a guitar. Naturally gifted, he soon mastered the finger style that characterised traditional folk music. At the same time, he began to improvise by bending notes and switching time signatures. It wasn’t long before he was performing in public and heading for London, where he encountered Davey Graham. Another precociously talented guitarist, Graham’s composition, ‘Angie’, which Jansch would later record, became a primer for advanced finger picking skills among a new wave of elite acoustic guitarists.
Jansch also encountered Anne Briggs, the wild, carefree and striking singer regarded by many as a lodestone of British folk music. They travelled around the UK together, performing for loose change. “He was a boyfriend,” said Briggs, “but a very loose sort of boyfriend. We were very close – in music and lifestyle.”
The lifestyle to which Briggs referred owed something to the troubadour tradition of Medieval times. Apart from his guitar, Jansch had little use for personal possessions; no interest in his appearance; and often had no fixed abode. He was content to play wherever there was an audience, make a few pennies to buy food and drink and doss down on the floor of anyone prepared to put him up. Meanwhile, his guitar and song writing skills accumulated. His legend grew, as did outside influences like Arabic tunings and Indian raga music. Bert Jansch had somehow developed into a completely original one-off. Ahead of his time, immensely skilled but always strangely diffident, he was a self-effacing maestro of the guitar, whose only vice seems to have been a fondness for the bottle.
Signed in 1965 to the folk label Transatlantic, Jansch’s eponymous debut album was released the same year. Further albums followed until he joined Pentangle in 1967. Their members all mixed group activity with solo work, none more so than Jansch. They enjoyed a minor hit single in ‘Light Flight’ which was used as the theme to a TV series called Take Three Girls. The album from which it was drawn, Basket Of Light, reached number five in the LP charts in 1969. It was the only time Jansch troubled the chart compilers.
This mattered not in the slightest, to him or his many admirers. “[He was] the innovator of the time, so far ahead of what anyone else was doing,” said Jimmy Page, who recorded Jansch’s arrangement of ‘Blackwaterside’ with Led Zeppelin. A decade and a half later, Johnny Marr would say that Jansch was… “massive, one of the most influential and intriguing musicians to have come out of the British music scene.”
But accolades don’t pay the bills. Jansch briefly ran a guitar shop at the unfashionable end of Kings Road but it closed after two years. Thereafter, he performed with reformed editions of Pentangle as a solo artist and continued to release a series of uncompromising albums on small independent labels. His drinking led to health problems and in 1978 he gave up alcohol; a decision welcomed by his biographer Colin Harper, who wrote: “Bert’s creativity, reliability, energy, commitment and quality of performance were all rescued dramatically”. Harper’s biography helped revive Jansch’s reputation; as did the 2000 TV documentary Dreamweaver; an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University in 2007; and an invitation to join Neil Young on tour in America in 2010.
“Generations of would-be pickers sat at his concerts watching his fingerwork with envy and astonishment,” wrote Robin Denselow in a Guardian tribute following Jansch’s death in October 2011. “‘I’m not recording for anyone,’ he told me. ‘Just myself.’”
BERT TRANSCRIBED – THE BERT JANSCH SONGBOOK
Bert Transcribed presents 24 songs by legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist Bert Jansch. Each song has been meticulously transcribed and annotated to detail every aspect of Bert Jansch’s groundbreaking style and technique.