“Strolling down the highway, I’m going to get there my way”—prophetic words, the opening lines of the first track on Bert Jansch’s 1965 self-titled debut album. The legendary Scottish musician, who died five years ago last October at age 67, sojourned through the pits and pinnacles of music-making guided by his own compass, largely disinterested in popular trends.
He soaked up many musical veins—blues, jazz, ragas, folk, and the traditional tunes of Britain and Ireland—yet he always transformed those styles to suit his own. Listen to “Strolling Down the Highway”—it’s a blues, but the bending bass line and rolling hammer-ons are distinctly Jansch. That first album made him a headliner on the British folk circuit, but he was never a typical folkie. Low on the raconteur scale, he was nonetheless riveting onstage, intense with a dark, romantic allure. Jansch became a world-traveling concert draw as a member of Pentangle, the landmark acoustic ensemble that mined folk, traditional, jazz, and other elements (and that also featured guitarist John Renbourn), but he never gained the commercial success of contemporary admirers such as Neil Young, Paul Simon, or Jimmy Page. Nevertheless, the Led Zeppelin guitarist was so impressed he recorded Jansch’s version of the tradition “Blackwaterside” on the first Zeppelin album, renaming it “Black Mountain Side.” (Al Stewart has said that he taught Page how to play the folk song in D A D G A D.)
“The only three people that I’ve ever copied were Big Bill Broonzy, Davey Graham, and Archie Fisher,” Jansch once remarked. One of those three begs to differ. “He didn’t really copy,” recalls Fisher, a popular Scottish folk musician who gave the young Jansch a few lessons at the Howff, a seminal Edinburgh folk club. “He never exactly played what I played. What he used to do was absorb things, get the sense of what I was trying to. He could pick up guitar just by watching other people. It was quite remarkable.”
Low on the raconteur scale, Jansch was nonetheless riveting onstage, intense with a dark, romantic allure.
Herbert Jansch originally planned to become a gardener. In 1960, the year he discovered the Howff, he signed on as an apprentice nurseryman. But guitars soon proved more fetching than hoes and hand- pruners, so the 16-year-old Jansch moved into the Howff, where he did odd jobs and taught guitar lessons. This was his university, and the blues players, traditional singers, and folkies who passed through the door became his teachers. Upon leaving the bosom of the Howff, Jansch tested his talent on the road, playing small clubs throughout the Scottish lowlands and Northern England. His early repertoire was steeped in blues, along with a few originals. He hadn’t sung much at the Howff, but in the years on the road he developed a sometimes snarling, entrancing vocal style that danced around the quirky rhythms of his guitar. By 1964, though his life was unstable, bouncing between crash pads in Edinburgh and London, the stage magic of Bert Jansch fell firmly in place.
One of his earliest advocates was traditional singer Anne Briggs. A fiery, beautiful woman, she and Jansch had bonded during his trip to London the previous year. Now that he was back, she persuaded recording engineer Bill Leader to make a Bert Jansch album. Along with Briggs’ critically acclaimed recordings, Leader had recorded the groundbreaking Folk Routes, New Routes with traditionalist Shirley Collins and jazzman Davey Graham. Over a few sessions, Leader recorded Jansch, playing borrowed guitars, in Leader’s Camden flat. He played the recording master for Nat Joseph, founder of Transatlantic Records, which had started with sex-education discs and had of late branched into folk. Joseph agreed to release it for a flat hundred pounds. Sensing it ran a little short, Joseph later requested three more tracks, from which Jansch would receive mechanical royalties. In all, Transatlantic made a sweet deal on an album that would sell 150,000 copies over the next decade.
Bert Jansch demonstrated his versatility as a songwriter and guitarist. “Needle of Death,” a sympathetic lament for a heroin addict, induced substantial commentary. On “Oh, How Your Love Is Strong,” a man confronts the woman who recently gave birth to his son. “Would it be a crime, to leave at such a time, when you’ve plenty claims to make on me?”—questions Jansch himself would later pose. “Courting Blues” and “Dreams of Love” are more sweetly romantic. Instrumentals such as “Alice’s Wonderland,” with its jazz inflections, and “Casbah,” with its Middle-Eastern flavor, show Jansch stepping toward—certainly not over—Davey Graham territory. He achieves equal footing with the fingerstyle master on “Anji,” Graham’s underground classic, which Jansch customizes with extended resolves, flailed strings, and a sampling of Nat Adderly’s soul-jazzy “Work Song.”
1966’s Jack Orion would also drop jaws throughout the folk scene. With the exception of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” all the tunes are traditional. The most gripping is “Blackwaterside,” an old Irish song about a girl who gives up her virtue to a scamp. Anne Briggs had taught it to Jansch, who worked out a fingerstyle arrangement that did not rely on the three-chord folk strumming that Briggs abhorred, at least when applied to traditional music. Jansch’s fingerpicking follows the mood changes in the song (see “Blackwaterside”). He recorded the song in drop-D tuning. The verse structure opens sweetly, following the melody, which takes a jagged turn with a few quick, fevered upstrokes, and then resolves with a hypnotic, rolling descend to the bottom D. Excepting “The Waggoner’s Lad,” which he plays on banjo, all the songs on Jack Orion are in the modal-friendly tunings of drop-D and D A D G A D.
Throughout his career, Jansch’s guitar accompaniment ranged from simple picking patterns to complex, rigorously crafted arrangements that traveled up and down the fretboard. The traditional “Reynardine,” from 1971’s Rosemary Lane, epitomizes this near-classical approach. It’s a beautifully crafted piece that chases a cascade of hammer-ons off of barre chords and open strings. A G string bent down against the ring of an open D is one of many mood enhancers. “If you look at the traditional songs he recorded, they’ve all got a very strong harmonic structure, Like ‘Reynardine,’” Fisher says. “He was definitely a man for harmony and harmonic structures.”
Jansch never called himself a traditional musician—blues licks often tainted the purity of his renditions—but the old songs were part of his background. They figured prominently in his next adventure, the Pentangle, whose 1968 eponymous album led off with “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.” The innovative ensemble merged the blues and folk sensibilities of Jansch, guitarist John Renbourn, and vocalist Jacqui McShee, with the jazz chops of double bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox. It was an innovative, influential band whose third album, Basket of Light (Transatlantic), rose to No. 5 on the British charts. The album’s “Light Flight,” featuring changing time signatures, became the theme song of the popular BBC drama, Take Three Girls. Jansch occasionally played banjo; Renbourn sometimes added sitar. Most often it was Renbourn weaving lead lines around Jansch’s fingerpicking. “I think that was a very good learning experience for Renbourn, who became so good at second guitar parts,” says American fingerstyle master Duck Baker, who toured with Jansch. “The fact that Bert made him go 90 percent of the way to him was part of that.”
Jansch’s creativity found an outlet in Pentangle, but the inevitable discord between five musical individualists took hold after the success of Basket. None of the members, certainly not Jansch, enjoyed the trappings of fame. Their sixth and final album, Solomon’s Seal (Reprise), was released in September 1972.
He did not return to the acclaimed solo career established by his early Transatlantic recordings. Reprise, Pentangle’s last label, released a solo Jansch album, Moonshine, with little fanfare, then dropped him. He took up with the cutting-edge Charisma Records, recorded 1974’s LA Turnaround and 1975’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon, solid albums backed by top LA session players, but commercial flops. “There was one period in the ’70s when he went to just strumming,” says Rod Clements, who played bass, mandolin, and guitar on A Rare Conundrum, Jansch’s third Charisma release, recorded in London. “He was trying to get people to accept him as a songwriter and he tried to simplify his playing. Santa Barbara Honeymoon—there’s hardly any fingerpicking on that.”
‘If you look at the traditional songs he recorded, they’ve all got a very strong harmonic structure. He was definitely a man for harmony.’—Archie Fisher
Yet, there was exquisite fingerpicking on 1979’s Avocet (Charisma), an instrumental album with fiddler Martin Jenkins and bassist Danny Thompson, made up of songs named after seabirds and wading birds. It didn’t knock the Pretenders off the charts, but the critics were kind. Jansch’s career doldrums were offset a bit by the 1982 reunion of Pentangle. The new incarnation lasted well into the ’90s, with Jansch and Jacqui McShee the only original members to last through various lineups. It wasn’t as lucrative as the old days, but it provided some sustenance. Jansch was in a slump, a situation aggravated by his dependence on alcohol. “I was a little bit in the firing line,” Clements says. “He was living at my house for about 18 months, and I was in the position of looking after him. I had to make a few awkward phone calls to people saying that Bert wouldn’t be able to come tonight.”
In October 1987, Jansch was sent to the hospital with a failing pancreas. He was advised that drinking alcohol was killing him. Clements stayed close during this pensive period, backing him in the studio and on the road. “I think he was feeling pretty low about everything,” Clements says. “He’d made the decision not to drink again, which he stuck to, but I think people in that situation, it takes them awhile to readjust to life and rediscover their enthusiasms.”
In sobriety, he rekindled his enthusiasm for music. He released two albums in 1990: Sketches (Temple), a reworking of older songs, and The Ornament Tree (Run River), comprised mostly of traditional material. Peter Kirtly was now his guitar wingman, meeting Renbourn’s challenge of embellishing Jansch’s ornamental guitar style. “Obviously, you don’t play too much, don’t play too little,” Kirtley says. “We always left something open so we could improvise. The scaffold was there for the melody and chords, but there was always room to maneuver.”
Television viewers across the pond were reminded that the guitarist was still vital through the BBC documentary, 1992’s Acoustic Routes, a celebration of the folk revival, which placed Jansch at the center. The next step in his return to relevance was the release of 1995’s When the Circus Comes to Town (Cooking Vinyl), his first album of new, original material in ten years. Songs such as “Step Back,” which laments the dashed hopes of the working class, and “Back Home,” a rumination of an idyllic—(perhaps imagined)—childhood showed Jansch to be back in fine songwriting form.
The new millennium smiled upon Jansch with Colin Harper’s clear-eyed yet laudatory 2000 biography, Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (Bloomsbury UK). Its publication arrived in tandem with Dazzling Stranger: The Bert Jansch Anthology (Castle). In 2001, he received a Lifetime Achievement honor at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and he would be vaunted again in 2007 as a member of the original Pentangle. Younger artists such as Johnny Marr, Beth Orton, Bernard Butler, and Devendra Banhart, to name a few, cited his influence and joined him on the stage and in the studio. Four fine original albums followed Circus; all different works, but all returned to traditional songs, blues numbers, and postcards from his life. “High Times,” from the last album, The Black Swan, reflects on a friend’s death, tempering guilty remorse with warm memories.
Jansch died of lung cancer on October 5, 2011, cradled in the arms of his wife, Loren. Yet the preceding year, he had been busy touring with Neil Young, performing at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, sharing the bill with electric scorchers such as Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. It’s a fitting image from those final days, available on DVD, Jansch playing “Blackwaterside,” near the end of the highway, mesmerizing the crowds, his way.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.