Bert Jansch died in October 2011. He was one of my favourite guitarists; one of my favourite acoustic players. He opened up a whole new world of music to me.
Jansch was a leading figure in the British folk boom of the 1960s, a revivalist and innovator. He was a pioneer and a guitar prophet – his work hung, wafting, waiting and so many guitarists discovered this work, took it and made something of their own from it.
The most obvious name to profit from this prophet is of course Jimmy Page. The thing that Page had in his playing that made him different from the slew of 1960s guitar heroes was a deft facility and understanding of the acoustic folk idiom. And that playing ability came from pouring himself in to study of Jansch – and from there Joni Mitchell and Roy Harper and Davy Graham and many others. But Jansch was, for so many, the one on the top of the hill. He took so much from Graham – particularly the tune Angie, which he made his own. And his collaboration with John Renbourn was crucial too. The pair made wonderful music together, and they would make amazing music alone (but because of each other).
The pair played together in Pentangle – taking their folk roots and discipline and extending it out toward a gypsy-inspired version of jazz music.
I couldn’t always take everything by Jansch – some of his early albums and the Pentangle material became a bit too hey nonny-nonsense for me; particularly when played at precisely the wrong time. But as with anything formative, influential and so clearly felt across the careers of others it is about the discovery: the point at which you arrive to this music.
I feel, in some way, that I was saved by the music of Bert Jansch. It gave me a new avenue to explore, arriving at a time when I was feeling bored with music; bored in fact with life. That’s my baggage that I bring to it. I would sit and smoke cigarettes and avoid the journalism class I was enrolled in. I would flit incongruously between the early Bert Jansch albums and The Beastie Boys. I would listen to Bert And John and then Los Lobos. I would listen to the folk guitar sampler LP I had found for $1 – it being my introduction to both Bert and John and to Davy Graham, John Fahey and other crucial masters – and then I would listen to Supergroove. Or whatever.
But this music resonated – it meant a lot. And through it I would find new passions – I sat listening to Jansch and the other folk guitar players as, through a fug of smoke and the waft of several other clichés, I taught myself to write, creating an opportunity for a column here, sending in some reviews there. Justifying my existence, when I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, by finding projects; by working at understanding music – using it to keep me afloat, alive and interested. It had always worked before. Now it was very much a lifeline.
Jansch was not just a guitarist. It would be understandable to take him as just that; many people I’m sure listen to him purely for that. But Jansch preferred to see himself as a songwriter. And when you’ve created something like Needle Of Death it’s no unfair claim. Many people will never create something half as meaningful across an entire career as that one song right there. Yet they’ll happily call themselves songwriters, poets, dreamers, schemers.
Bert Jansch was the real deal; a craftsman. A poet and a prophet, sure. But a craftsman, a grafter. A hard worker.
He was a gateway too – for me it was from him to Renbourn and Fahey, to Nick Drake and John Martyn; perhaps most tellingly it was back to Led Zeppelin with a whole new understanding of their sound and approach. And it was back to the earliest work of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell – to see how they too had taken so much from this master.
Jansch had his demons. He was a heavy drinker. It almost killed him 25 years ago. He had quit the music industry more than once – becoming a farmer, working hard in that way, crafting, grafting. But he had returned.
The two-CD compilation, Dazzling Stranger: The Bert Jansch Anthology is what carries me through now – it’s been one of my very best friends, in a musical sense. But those early records – the self-titled debut, the Bert & John record – are worth hearing.
And then in 2005 he released what now rests as his final album, The Black Swan. His voice, his writing – and of course his guitar – all seeming and sounding so crucial once again. A lovely reminder of someone happily sitting outside of the music industry, far more interested in just music.
Neil Young paid the debt back by taking Jansch along as his opening act on his last solo tour; introducing him to a whole new audience, reminding some of the old audience of Jansch and his influence. A nice touch.
When Bert Jansch died it meant his battle with cancer was over, and I thought back to how much his music had meant. To how big he had been – at such an important time for me. And now I think about that whenever I hear him or one of the many players that have taken something from him.
I’d like to dedicate this post to my good friend Ben, who shared so much of this music with me, so much of the same overbearing enthusiasm for this music and who once, long ago – in a life parallel to when I smoked clove cigarettes, wore slippers to the pub, carried a briefcase but had no job and told people that one day I might write things about music – was a dab hand when it came to offering his own version of Needle Of Death.
R.I.P Bert Jansch.