Bert Jansch, 1943-2011
October 4, 2011
Jansch spent most of his career as a solo artist, but he also achieved international notoriety through his membership in folk-jazz supergroup Pentangle, which included fellow fingerstyle ace John Renbourn.
While a reluctant and retiring star, Jansch’s influence, both as solo artist and a member of Pentangle, was enormous. Most famously, Jimmy Page used Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional English folk tune “Blackwaterside,”—which appeared on Jansch’s 1966 LP Jack Orion—as the foundation for the Led Zeppelin I’s “Black Mountain Side.” Page also used some of the percussive fingerpicking elements of Jansch’s “The Gardener” (which itself borrowed from Davy Graham’s “She Moved Through the Fair”) for signature passages in the Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin concert staple “White Summer.” Neil Young famously called Jansch the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar and borrowed heavily from Jansch’s 1965 heroin lament “Needle of Death” for his own “Ambulance Blues.” While Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Donovan—and in later years Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr—were also strongly inspired by Jansch’s fingerstyle approach and songwriting.
Jansch’s first release, 1965’s Bert Jansch , along with Davey Graham’s Folk, Blues and Beyond, was essential listening among British bohemians and the new English rock royalty alike. His second LP, Jack Orion, consisted entirely of his arrangements of traditional folk tunes and included contributions from John Renbourn, but it helped cement his reputation as one of the most original players and singers on the English folk scene. 1966 also saw the first full collaboration with Renbourn, the Bert and John LP. By 1968 the duo had drafted vocalist Jaqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson, and drummer Terry Cox and formed Pentangle.
Though other groups, most notably Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention were starting to explore the possibilities of folk fusion in a band context, Pentangle were wholly original and highly inventive—mixing traditional British folk forms with jazz, rock, country blues, and Eastern elements. Live shows often featured incendiary, driving instrumental breaks and furious solos from Jansch and Renbourn that reflected both the exploratory jazz of the period and the expansiveness of improvised West Coast rock. The band was often brilliant in the studio too—the band’s east-meets-west take on the folk standard “Once I Had a Sweetheart,” is a production and arrangement masterpiece.
While Jansch’s solo output from the ’60s and his work with Pentangle, which split in 1972, remains his most renowned, he worked throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. And less commercially successful works like 1974’s L.A. Turnaround (produced by Monkee Mike Nesmith) and his collaborations with wife Loren Auerbach are now regarded as minor masterworks.
Jansch’s influence proved enduring. When psychedelic folk bloomed again in the early 2000s in the work of Davendra Banhart, Six Organs of Admittance, and Espers, Jansch and Pentangle were readily cited as pillars of the scene. He enjoyed a revival of interest in the mainstream in the wake of the psychedelic folk revival—releasing the Black Swan LP in 2006 and touring extensively with Neil Young in the latter part of the decade.
Jansch was exceedingly soft spoken and modest. He often referred to his work as a point along a continuum rather than groundbreaking, and was quick to acknowledge the influences of contemporaries like Davey Graham. And while his quiet public persona meant he received less notoriety than many of the artists that regarded him as a hero, it’s unlikely we’ll see an acoustic guitarist with more widespread and profound influence any time soon.