Herbert Jansch (born 3 November 1943), known as Bert Jansch, is a Scottish folk musician and founding member of the band Pentangle. He was born in Glasgow and, in the 1960s, he was heavily influenced by the guitarist Davey Graham and folk singers such as Anne Briggs. He is best known as an innovative and accomplished acoustic guitarist but is also a singer and songwriter.
He has recorded at least 25 albums and has toured extensively starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 21st century. His work has influenced such artists as Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Jimmy Page, Ian Anderson, Nick Drake, Donovan and Neil Young, and earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2001 BBC Folk Awards.
After a stint as a nurseryman, Jansch became a full-time musician and spent two years playing one-night stands in British folk clubs. This was a musical apprenticeship which exposed him to a range of influences, including Martin Carthy and Ian Campbell, but especially Anne Briggs, from whom he learnt some of the songs (such as "Blackwaterside" and "Reynardine") that would later feature strongly in his recording career.
Between 1963 and 1965, he travelled around Europe and beyond, hitch-hiking from place to place and living on earnings from busking and casual musical performances in bars and cafes. Before leaving Glasgow, he married a 16-year-old girl called Lynda Campbell: a marriage of convenience, which allowed her to travel with him although she was too young to have her own passport. They split up after a few months and Jansch was eventually repatriated to Britain after catching dysentery in Tangiers.
Jansch moved to London where, in the mid-1960s, there was a burgeoning interest in folk music. There, he met the engineer and producer, Bill Leader, at whose home they made a recording of Jansch's music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Leader sold the tape for £100 to Transatlantic Records, who produced an album directly from it. The album Bert Jansch was released in 1965 and went on to sell 150,000 copies. It included Jansch's protest song "Do You Hear Me Now" which was brought to the attention of the pop music mainstream later that year by the singer Donovan, who covered it on his Universal Soldier EP, which reached No. 1 in the UK EP chart and No. 27 in the singles chart. Also included in Jansch's first album was his song "Needle of Death" which is claimed to have influenced the drug-taking habits of a generation of British youth. In his early career, Jansch was sometimes characterized as a British Bob Dylan. This, however, was misleading, in that Jansch's best work has always been fundamentally instrument-driven unlike Dylan's which is primarily lyric-based.
Jansch followed his first album with two more, produced in quick succession: It Don't Bother Me and Jack Orion—which contained his first recording of "Blackwaterside", later to be taken up by Jimmy Page and recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Black Mountain Side". Jansch says:
In London, Jansch met up with other innovative acoustic guitar players, including John Renbourn (with whom he shared a flat in Kilburn), Davey Graham and Paul Simon. They would all meet and play in various London music clubs, including The Troubadour, in Old Brompton Road, and Les Cousins club in Greek Street, Soho. Renbourn and Jansch frequently played together, developing their own intricate interplay between the two guitars, often referred to as Folk Baroque. In 1966, they recorded the Bert and John album together, featuring much of this material. Late in 1967 they tired of the all-nighters at Les Cousins and became the resident musicians at a music venue set up by Bruce Dunnett, a Scottish entrepreneur, at The Horseshoe pub (now defunct) at 264-267 Tottenham Court Road. This became the haunt of a number of musicians, including the singer Sandy Denny. Another singer, Jacqui McShee began performing with the two guitarists and, with the addition of Danny Thompson (string bass) and Terry Cox(drums), they formed the group, Pentangle. The venue evolved into a jazz club, but by then the group had moved on.
In 1968, Jansch married Heather Sewell, then an art student—as Heather Jansch she has become a well-known sculptor. She inspired several of his songs and instrumentals: the most obvious is "Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell", from his 1968 album, Birthday Blues, but Jansch says that, despite the name, "M'Lady Nancy" (from the 1971 Rosemary Lane album) was also written for her.
Pentangle's first major concert was at the Royal Festival Hall, in 1968, and their first album was released in the same year. Although Pentangle were regarded as a folk music group, they played many of their own compositions and Jansch undertook much of the writing. Pentangle embarked on a demanding schedule of touring the world and recording and, during this period, Jansch largely gave up solo performances. He did, however, continue to record, releasing Rosemary Lane in 1971. The tracks, for this album were recorded on a portable tape recorder by Bill Leader at Jansch's cottage in Ticehurst, Sussex — a process which took several months, with Jansch only working when he was in the right mood. Pentangle split up in 1973, and Jansch and his wife bought a farm near Lampeter, in Wales, and withdrew temporarily from the concert circuit.
With the end of the tour, Conundrum parted company and Jansch spent six months in the United States, where he recorded the Heartbreak album with Albert Lee.
Jansch toured Scandinavia, working as a duo with Martin Jenkins and, based on ideas they developed, recorded the Avocet album (initially released in Denmark). Jansch rates this as amongst his own favourites from his own recordings.
On returning to England, he set up Bert Jansch's Guitar Shop at 220, New King's Road, Fulham. The shop specialised in hand-built acoustic guitars but was not a commercial success and closed after two years.
In 1980, an Italian promoter encouraged the original Pentangle to reform for a tour and a new album. The reunion started badly, with Terry Cox being injured in a car accident, resulting in the band's debuting at the Cambridge Folk Festival as a four-piece Pentangle. They managed to complete a tour of Italy (with Cox in a wheelchair) and Australia, before Renbourn left the band in 1983. There then followed a series of personnel changes, ultimately leaving Jansch and McShee as the only original members.
Jansch had always been a heavy drinker, but in 1987 he fell ill while working with Rod Clements and was rushed to hospital, where he was told that he was "as seriously ill as you can be without dying" and that he had a choice of "giving up alcohol or simply giving up". He chose the former option: Colin Harper states that "There can be no doubt that Bert's creativity, reliability, energy, commitment and quality of performance were all rescued dramatically by the decision to quit boozing". Jansch and Clements continued the work they had started before Jansch's illness, resulting in the 1988 Leather Launderette album.
Since 1995, Jansch has appeared frequently at the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street, London. Live at the 12 Bar was originally a bootleg, but was of studio standard, and issued officially in 1996. In 2002 Jansch, Bernard Butler and Johnny "Guitar" Hodge performed live together at the Jazz Cafe, London.
In 2003, Jansch celebrated his sixtieth birthday with a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Guest musicians included Johnny Marr, Ralph McTell, Hope Sandoval, David Roback and Colm Ó Cíosóig.
In 2005, Jansch teamed up again with one of his early influences, Davey Graham, for a small number of concerts in England and Scotland. However, his concert tour had to be postponed, owing to illness, and Jansch underwent major heart surgery in the later part of 2005. By 2006 he had recovered and was playing concerts again. Jansch's long-awaited album The Black Swan was released on Sanctuary on 18 September 2006, featuring Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart, amongst other guests. .
On 5 June 2006, Jansch received the Mojo Merit Award at the Mojo Honours List ceremony, based on "an expanded career that still continues to be inspirational". The award was presented by Beth Orton and Roy Harper. Another award winner at the ceremony was Sir Elton John, who reminisced from the stage about how he and Bernie Taupin used to listen to Bert Jansch records.
Some of his songs feature a basic clawhammer style of right-hand playing but these are often distinguished by unusual chord voicings or by chords with added notes. An example of this is his song "Needle of Death", which features a simple picking style but several of the chords are decorated with added ninths. Characteristically, the ninths are not the highest note of the chord, but appear in the middle of the arpeggiated finger-picking, creating a "lumpiness" to the sound.
Another characteristic feature is his ability to hold a chord in the lower strings whilst bending an upper string—often bending up from a semitone below a chord note. These can be heard clearly on songs such as "Reynardine" where the bends are from the diminished fifth to the perfect fifth. Like many guitarists, string bends are a feature of his work and are often used to create notes which are just slightly sharp or slightly flat (by bending a little less than a semitone), creating the impression of a tonality that does not belong to a diatonic scale.
Jansch often fits the accompaniment to the natural rhythm of the words of his songs, rather than playing a consistent rhythm throughout. This can lead to occasional bars appearing in unusual time signatures. For example, his version of the Ewan MacColl song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", unlike most other covers of that song, switches from 4/4 time to 3/4 and 5/4. A similar disregard for conventional time signatures is found in several of his collaborative compositions with Pentangle: for instance, "Light Flight" from the Basket of Light album includes sections in 5/8, 7/8 and 6/4 time.
Jansch's first instrument was a Zenith which was marketed as the "Lonnie Donegan guitar" and which he played in the folk clubs in the early 1960s. His first album was reputedly recorded using a Martin 002 borrowed from Martin Carthy. Pictures of Jansch in the middle 1960s show him playing a variety of models, including Martin and Epiphone guitars. He had a guitar hand-built by John Bailey, which was used for most of the Pentangle recordings but was eventually stolen. He then had a contract with Yamaha, who provided him with an FG1500 which he is still playing, along with a Yamaha LL11 1970s jumbo guitar. Jansch's relationship with Yamaha continues and they presented him with an acoustic guitar with gold trim and abalone inlay for his 60th birthday although, valued at about £3000, Jansch is quoted as saying that it is too good for stage use.
Arts: Pop: Return of the Dream Weaver ; the Critics Wrote off Bert Jansch 25 Years Ago, but There's Life in the Old Folkie Yet. He Tells Colin Harper How, in the Coming Months, There'll Be No Getting Away from Him
Jun 23, 2000; "My interest in albums usually wanes at around this point," says Bert Jansch, 57 this year and, for all the outward appearance of...