John Renbourn

Nobody's Fault But MineAnother Monday
Lady Goes To ChurchSir John Alot Of Merrie Englande...
Little SadieFaro Annie
Kokomo BluesFaro Annie
So Early In The SpringSo Early In The Spring
LindsaySo Early In The Spring
New NothyngeThe Nine Maidens
Lord FranklinLive In Italy
Sandwood Down To KyleLive In Italy
Cello Prelude In GPalermo Snow


John Renbourn playlist



Contributor: Andrew Shields

Like his friend and sometime musical collaborator, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn was heavily influenced by the innovations which Davey Graham had made in the early 1960s 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. While Renbourn was not as distinctive a singer or as fine a songwriter as Jansch, or as restlessly innovative and experimental as Graham, he is, nonetheless, a superbly skilled guitarist with a delicacy of touch and a mastery of tone which only the very best of his contemporaries could match. Like Graham, he is also adept at a wide variety of musical styles, ranging from the fingerstyle technique, influenced by the great American acoustic blues guitarists, of which he is a master, to the classical guitar styles in which he has come to excel.

Renbourn was also an excellent arranger of folk songs, whose layered and intricate approach reflected his broad ranging musical curiosity. Inspired by his admiration for the late David Munrow’s pioneering ensemble, the Early Music Group, Renbourn was also keenly interested in early music, particularly in that of the Elizabethan period. As a result, some of the best of his own later compositions were heavily influenced by the works of early composers, most notably, perhaps, those of the great Elizabethan composer, John Dowland (whose Melancholy Galliard, Renbourn was to record on his 1970 album, The Lady and the Unicorn), whose books of songs were once referred to by the classical singer, Mark Padmore, as “the 17th-century equivalent of Bob Dylan albums”.

Given that Renbourn arrived on the London (or more specifically, the Soho) folk scene shortly after both Jansch and Graham (although he had been playing both electric and acoustic guitar for a number of years before then), it was unsurprising that his early work was so heavily influenced by that of those two great guitarists. It was also shaped by his admiration for those American bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, whom he had heard on record or seen play gigs in England in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Despite this, Renbourn’s first self-titled record, while somewhat derivative in parts, did show, at its best, that he had the potential to be a major talent in his own right. Two of the instrumentals on it – Judy and The Wildest Pig In Captivity – were particularly strong, while the inclusion of two guitar duets with Bert Jansch on the album served as a portent for the future direction of both men’s musical careers.

Jansch and Renbourn had first met in late 1964 and, from that time on, the collaboration between them was to open up new musical avenues for both men. This musical partnership was to find, perhaps, its most effective platform in their work with the group, Pentangle, from 1967 onwards. The group grew out of their work together on the collaborative album, Bert and John, which was first released in 1966. While that album was at times a somewhat patchy one, it did include some ground-breaking instrumentals which showed to great effect the way in which two men’s differences in technique (with Renbourn’s playing being gentler and more melodic than Jansch’s harder edged and more angular style) complemented each other. The later addition of the excellent English folk singer, Jacqui McShee, and the superb double bassist Danny Thompson, and drummer Terry Cox into this mix was subsequently to make the group Pentangle into one of the finest English folk groups of the last forty years (and one well deserving of a Toppermost of their own).

Before that group had got off the ground however, Renbourn had made his second album, Another Monday, in 1966. The record represented a significant step forward in his career and signalled his emergence as an artist with a distinctive style and a musical personality of his own. It included one of the first and maybe the best of the ‘pastiches’ of early musical styles which he has written, the oddly titled but extremely beautiful Ladye Nothing’s Toye Puffe, (although I am not sure what he was smoking when he came up with that title). Renbourn re-recorded the tune in a new beautifully intricate arrangement under the title New Nothynge on his excellent 1985 album The Nine Maidens and I have included that superb version here. I have also selected Renbourn’s excellent version of Blind Willie Johnson’s great song, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, with backing vocals from Jacqui McShee. The album also included another of Renbourn’s masterclasses in the art of fingerstyle guitar in his fine version of the classic folk song, I Know My Babe (also known as I Know My Rider) and I am (hopefully) including it here in this video link.

Renbourn’s love both for English folk music in all its varieties and for early music were again apparent on his 1968 solo album, Sir John Alot of Merrie Englande… From it I have chosen another beautiful Renbourn instrumental, Lady Goes To Church. Like his other albums however, on it he also mixed up these influences with ideas derived from jazz, blues, and, on occasion, eastern music. My next selections here are from the classic album Faro Annie which was first released in 1971 and which proved to be one of the finest of Renbourn’s career. On it, he displayed a complete mastery over what would nowadays be described as American roots music.

In this respect, Faro Annie represented a return to the blues/folk idioms of his first album, but, throughout the record, Renbourn showed the massive leaps forward he had made in terms of both artistic maturity and interpretative skill since then. He also displayed an impressive willingness to experiment, playing sitar on a beautifully understated version of the classic folk song Buffalo Skinners which is one of the many highlights on the album. The two tracks I have selected however, demonstrate Renbourn’s growing skills as an arranger of folk and blues songs – going from the gentle funkiness of his fine version of Kokomo Arnold’s classic Kokomo Blues to his superb version of the great ‘murder ballad’, Little Sadie.

Renbourn’s growing prowess as an arranger whose work could encompass a wide variety of musical styles is further reflected in my remaining selections. These tracks also demonstrate the remarkable technical mastery, deftness and delicacy which characterise his guitar playing. Two of the selections here, including his masterly versions of the English folk song, So Early In The Spring and of Archie Fisher’s classic song, Lindsay, come from his excellent largely folk-based 1979 album, So Early In The Spring. Two of the others, including his outstanding version of the classic folk song, Lord Franklin with its (perhaps Davey Graham inspired) raga-like opening, come from his beautifully mellow live album, Live In Italy, which was recorded in Rome in 1989 but not released until 2006. As for Lord Franklin it is, probably, my favourite folk song and one which seems to attract great versions. These go back to Martin Carthy’s classic rendition of the song on his 1966 Second Album through to the superb and close to definitive version of it recorded by the Irish musicians, Kevin Burke and Micheál O’Domhnaill, on their classic 1979 album, Promenade.

My final selection here is John Renbourn’s extraordinary arrangement for guitar of Johann Sebastian Bach’s great Cello Prelude In G which is one of the many highlights of his most recent album, Palermo Snow (2010). The entire album provides yet further evidence of the extraordinary talent and wide-ranging musical curiosity of this supremely talented musician, who ranks among the very best guitarists of his generation.


John Renbourn (1944-2015)


John Renbourn official website

John Renbourn Guitar Workshops

John Renbourn biography (Apple Music)

Bert Jansch (see Toppermost #234); Davey Graham (see Toppermost #291); Pentangle (see Toppermost #TBA).

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

TopperPost #253


  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 30, 2014

    Just saw that the next John Renbourn guitar workshop will be based on an exploration of the ‘work and musical legacy of Bert Jansch’. It is organised in association with the Bert Jansch foundation and more details can be found here.
    Nice tribute from one great guitar player to another…

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 26, 2015

    Very sorry to hear of the death of this great musician. There is a report here.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Mar 27, 2015

    Excellent piece about John Renbourn here. Played ‘Faro Annie’, his masterpiece, on repeat all day yesterday…

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