Bert Jansch

TrackAlbum
Needle Of DeathBert Jansch
Running From HomeBert Jansch
BlackwatersideJack Orion
ReynardineRosemary Lane
Rosemary LaneRosemary Lane
The Ornament Tree (Bonny Portmore)The Ornament Tree
Curragh Of KildareDownunder: Live in Australia
She Moved Through The FairDownunder: Live in Australia
CarnivalToy Balloon
High DaysThe Black Swan

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Along with Davey Graham and John Renbourn, Bert Jansch was one of the trinity of great guitarists who emerged from Britain in the early 1960s. Building on the innovations which Graham had made in terms both of guitar technique (especially in relation to open tunings and particularly the now famous DADGAD) and in synthesising elements of different musical traditions, including folk, blues, jazz, eastern and classical music), Jansch went on to establish himself as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, acoustic guitarists of the last fifty years.

Along with his superb skills as a guitarist, Jansch was also a first-rate songwriter as his classic first self-titled album clearly demonstrated. It included several excellent Jansch compositions, including what was, perhaps, his greatest song, Needle Of Death. The song was also one of the first anti-drug songs ever written and it laid the template for later songs on a similar theme, particularly Neil Young’s classic The Needle And The Damage Done. Along with a number of other fine self-composed songs (including Strolling Down The Highway, Jansch’s account of a recent trip to Algeria) the album also included the beautiful autobiographical song Running From Home, which dealt with his move from Edinburgh to London and which I have included here. The best known track on the album, however, is Jansch’s extraordinary version of the Davey Graham instrumental, Anji, which he rather confusingly recorded under the name, Angie. It remains, perhaps, the best known instrumental track of the 1960s and served as a perfect showcase for Jansch’s remarkable dexterity and deftness as a guitarist. Because it is so well known and so clearly a classic, I have decided not to include it here, in order to leave room for one or two of Jansch’s lesser known songs.

My third selection is Jansch’s classic version of Blackwaterside from his 1966 album, Jack Orion. It was an early example of his supreme ability as an arranger of folk songs, an ability which was to find, perhaps, its greatest expression on two of his later albums, Rosemary Lane and The Ornament Tree. He had worked out the arrangement of Blackwaterside while accompanying the great English folk singer, Anne Briggs, but his solo version of it here is, in my opinion, the definitive recording of the song. This arrangement was later to become a source of some controversy when Jimmy Page borrowed it without acknowledgement as the basis for the Led Zeppelin song, Black Mountain Side.

Jansch’s collaboration with Anne Briggs also led to his recording their classic song, Go Your Way My Love, on his 1967 album, Nicola. As performed by Robert Plant and Bernard Butler, the song also proved to be one of the highlights of the recent tribute concert to Jansch at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It is also one of those songs which missed out very narrowly on inclusion here and I would strongly recommend that readers should check out the great Jansch and Briggs duet version of it included in the recent CD and DVD edition of the excellent Billy Connolly documentary, Acoustic Routes.

Jansch’s career took on a new direction from late 1964 onwards, after he met a superb young English guitarist, John Renbourn, who shared many of the same influences as he did. However, Renbourn’s knowledge of classical music (and, in particular, of early music) was far greater than his was and their collaboration was to open up new musical avenues for them both. Their musical partnership was to find, perhaps, its most effective platform in their work with the group, Pentangle, from 1967 onwards. I have not included any of that band’s material here, however, (or any tracks from the fine album, Bert & John, which the two men made together and which was first released in 1966), as they are well worthy of a Toppermost in their own right.

Jansch was still formally a member of that band when he made the quiet masterpiece, Rosemary Lane, in 1971. It is an album of remarkable quality and stands as one of his greatest achievements. I have chosen two tracks from it for inclusion here. The first is Jansch’s superb rendition of the old ballad, Rosemary Lane, which features a typically subtle and beautifully understated guitar accompaniment. The second is one of Jansch’s greatest arrangements of a folk song – the magical eastern flavoured version of Reynardine. Taken as a whole, the album shows Jansch’s supreme ability as an interpreter of folk songs, while also demonstrating his continued excellence as a songwriter (particularly in songs like the reflective Tell Me What is True Love? and the sardonic Nobody’s Bar, which reflected Jansch’s disillusionment with the United States.

After Rosemary Lane, Bert Jansch continued to make fine albums although, sadly, these did not receive anything like the kind of critical acclaim or commercial success that they deserved. Indeed, although Jansch remained a revered figure in folk circles, it would not be until a number of younger rock guitarists, such as Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler, were to publicly state the extent of his influence on their own work that he finally received the kind of accolades which he had long merited.

My final selections here include three other examples of Jansch’s magisterial handling of folk songs. The first is The Ornament Tree, an old song which fitted in remarkably well with his own environmental concerns, while the second and third are magnificent versions of Irish folk songs (Curragh Of Kildare and She Moved Through The Fair). The latter is a haunting rendition of one of the greatest songs in the Irish canon and stands comparison with the very best versions of it that have been recorded.

Throughout his career, Bert Jansch frequently expressed his debt to the great American songwriter, Jackson C. Frank (see toppermost #151), who along with Davey Graham was, perhaps, the most important influence on his work. I have included Jansch’s superb version of Frank’s fine song, Carnival, which is a fitting repayment of that debt, and his fine version of Frank’s Blues Run The Game on the Downunder: Live in Australia CD also came very close to being included here. My last selection is High Days from his excellent final album, The Black Swan. The song itself is a beautiful elegy for a friend of Jansch’s who had died just before the album was made. More broadly speaking, the album itself served as a fitting end to the recording career of this peerless musician, who was as remarkable in the modern music industry for his modesty and integrity as for his supreme talent.

Bert Jansch official website

Bert Jansch biography (iTunes)

Bert Jansch (November 3rd 1943 – October 5th 2011). Andrew highly recommends (as I’m sure do all of us who’ve read) Colin Harper’s excellent book, Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival, for anyone interested in Bert’s brilliant career. And, as a postscript, here’s a brief clip of two of the giants of acoustic guitar Bert and Davey playing together in later life.

TopperPost #234

11 Comments

  1. Merric Davidson
    Mar 26, 2014

    For BBC TV viewers …

    “The Genius of Bert Jansch: Folk, Blues and Beyond” is on BBC4 this coming Friday, 28th March, at 10pm. It includes performances from the 2013 concert at the Royal Festival Hall, in celebration of his life.

    I can rememember the excitement of owning his first album, the kind of excitement only reserved for a handful of artists, proudly walking around with that pristine LP under my arm. It didn’t stay pristine for very long.

    First saw Bert Jansch at Les Cousins in the mid-60s and the last time I saw him play was just a few years ago to a handful of people in a small public library. Bert’s performance would have been the same there as in one of the big venues. Magnificent. But how shabbily we treat so many of our really important musicians on this island. It isn’t enough to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Folk Awards. Bert Jansch was the man and it took a younger generation to really recognize that, so thanks for this topper-tribute Andrew.

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Mar 26, 2014

    A fitting tribute to the great man Andrew.

    Bert Jansch was latterly married to Loren Auerbach with whom he recorded two fine albums in 1985/86; After The Long Night and Playing The Game. Here is a link to The Rainbow Man from the latter album.

    While nursing Bert Jansch at the end of his life, Loren Auerbach herself was battling cancer and survived her husband by no more than 10 weeks. Her voice coupled with Bert Jansch’s guitar is compelling listening.

  3. Bert Wright
    Mar 26, 2014

    Nice post Andrew and an unimpeachable selection of Bert’s best songs; you missed a couple of my favorites but none of your choices raised an eyebrow. As Merric says, that first blue album had an enormous impact, akin to Dylan’s Freewheelin’. We were just about learning to cope with the clawhammer style of Don’t Think Twice when along comes Bert, a guy from Edinburgh, our home town, and he’s doing things on guitar like we never heard before outside of Bill Broonzy. That album hit my gang of 1960s folkies like an express train and of course we all burst a gut to learn Angie which I can still have an arthritic stab at today. To then follow that by bringing in his mate John Renbourn for Bert & John was almost too marvellous for words and then again, to form Pentangle some years later, we thought we’d all died and gone to heaven. I remember seeing Pentangle in the George Sq Theatre in Edinburgh just after they were formed. All the folkies were there and the band just blew us away. Bert & John with a hot rhythm section plus Jacqui McShee – man, they were irresistible and so cool and taciturn. No bullshit, and no need for it; the music was the thing. It also put to bed the whole futile argument about “electrification” because if you could be this good with amps, why would you not? Too many of that generation never made it past 50 but I loved seeing Bert playing in Boston and Edinburgh in his 50s and 60s while still in the whole of his health. He cleaned up his act bigtime and for that final chapter in his life he was able to bask in the adulation he richly deserved. Particularly nice to hear him with just the voice and the guitar like it used to be. Davey Graham didn’t last so well, I feel. Why did he never become a major star? He wasn’t temperamentally suited, I don’t think. He was in many ways a very shy retiring sort of guy, very Scottish maybe. His mumbling intros to songs were barely audible, he didn’t care about money and the trappings of success; he expressed few opinions the way many of that “protest” generation did. He only cared about music but Jesus, what music. I just listened to Blackwaterside again and that guitar still defies comprehension. I never got past the first phrase, myself. I think posterity will be kind to him because the more you speak about him, you discover more and more people who were closet Jansch afficionados from way back. I was born an Albert, like my dad, after the German Prince, but as a teenager I became a Bert. My sister swore it was on account of Bert Jansch and she may have been right. Dazzling Stranger is indeed an excellent book and Merric, thanks for the BBC4 tip-off for Friday, a real must-see! And thanks for making my morning guys and respect to the Great Bert Jansch.

  4. David Lewis
    Mar 26, 2014

    As Andrew points out, an extremely fine songwriter, and a guitarists guitarist. Another great list.

    • Andrew Shields
      Mar 26, 2014

      Thanks for these comments.

      And I really envy those of you who saw Bert and Pentangle play in the 1960s and early 70s.

      I saw him play 4/5 times in Whelans in Dublin much later on and he was always incredibly modest and performed brilliantly. Loren also sang a few songs at most of those concerts…

      The best guitarist I have ever seen play live…

      Speaking of Davey Graham, there is a marvellous tribute to him by his ex-wife, Holly, here.

  5. John Chamberlain
    Mar 28, 2014

    Much enjoyed. I have the first blue album and was playing it again recently. I drifted away from that music and never really came back. So, this is a good reminder to visit some of his later stuff. Thanks.

  6. Peter Viney
    Mar 29, 2014

    As often recently, Toppermost informed my secondhand vinyl shopping, as I knew where a copy of “Jack Orion” was displayed locally. A couple of days in, “Nottamum Town” impresses most. It’s well-known as the song Bob Dylan put new lyrics too as Masters of War, but Bert Jansch makes it screamingly obvious by doing Nottamum Town in a close-to-Dylan vocal style. I suspect he was making a point!

  7. Merric Davidson
    May 9, 2014

    Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning. That would be one of Bert’s songs I’d like to add to Andrew’s toppermost. Here it is on record, the opening cut from L.A. Turnaround (1974). It is such a beautiful song.

    Perhaps of greater interest than just listening to it, is to watch this “home movie” of rehearsals at Charisma founder Tony Stratton-Smith’s house in Sussex (with producer Mike Nesmith) before the album was completed in California, with Klaus Voorman’s bass and Red Rhodes on pedal steel. Stratton-Smith called L.A. Turnaround “one of the 5 best albums Charisma has ever released”. The 2009 CD includes this film footage.

  8. Andrew Shields
    May 9, 2014

    Merric – thanks for this great footage and I agree that ‘Fresh’ is a very fine song, indeed… There is a good cover version of it here by John Renbourn & Wizz Jones (pity about the sound quality).

  9. Colin Duncan
    May 11, 2018

    A really good article, Andrew. I’m playing Bert Jansch quite a lot just now and I really love the Ornament Tree. I think the version of the Road Tae Dundee is brilliant with a tune I didn’t know. Saw Bert twice, but in Pentangle, which shows my age. Also, enjoyed the contributors’ comments. Thanks very much.

  10. Andrew Shields
    May 11, 2018

    Colin, thanks for this and for sending me back to The Ornament Tree. And ‘The Road Tae Dundee’ really is a beautiful track.

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