Obituary: Bert Jansch
The British folk great passes away aged 67
Words Rory Lewarne
Bert Jansch, the pioneering folk guitarist, has died of lung cancer, aged 67. Born in Glasgow and raised in West Pilton, one of the poorest parts of Edinburgh, and inspired by rock’n’roll and the folk blues of artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Herbert Jansch made the decision to become a musician in 1960. The next few years were spent as an itinerant, crashing on sofas, floors and beaches, and absorbing a diverse array of influences as he toured the UK folk club circuit, which had mushroomed after the skiffle craze of the late-’50s. It was a nurturing environment, which exposed Jansch to influences as diverse as Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy and, perhaps most significantly, Davey Graham. The latter had developed his ‘folk baroque’ style in Morocco; seeking similar inspiration, Jansch eventually made his way to Tangiers before being forced by a bout of dysentery to return home.
He settled in London, where the folk scene was burgeoning, and made a reel-to-reel recording in engineer Bill Leader’s living room for £100. This became his debut album, the massively influential Bert Jansch (1965), which, after Donovan covered one of its tracks for a best-selling EP, eventually sold 150,000 copies. It popularised Davey Graham’s signature tune ‘Anji’ (as ‘Angie’), and its best known track, the harrowing ‘Needle of Death’, would be subconsciously plagiarised for Neil Young’s 1974 song ‘Ambulance Blues’, for which Jansch now receives a partial credit. Young once called him the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix in terms of his influence on guitarists.
By 1966′s Jack Orion, he was working with guitarist John Renbourn. This album contained the instrumental ‘Blackwaterside’, which Jansch learned from Anne Briggs, his friend and lover. His arrangement would become world famous when Jimmy Page swiped it for Led Zeppelin’s 1969 track ‘Black Mountain Side’, for which Jansch receives no credit (Page got away with it the way he did with most of his musical thefts; by picking victims too poor to sue).
After a duet LP, Bert and John (1966), Jansch and Renbourn formed Pentangle, a jazzy folk-rock collective whose first three albums, The Pentangle, Sweet Child (both 1968) and Basket Of Light (1969), successfully crossed over to a rock audience. After a disastrous fourth LP, however, and numerous disagreements, legal wrangles and booze-related issues, he split the band in 1973 and moved to Wales to become a farmer. He attempted a solo comeback in the late ’70s, and reformed Pentangle in the mid-’80s, but was hampered by issues with alcohol, which he finally gave up in 1987 after becoming seriously ill.
The ’90s saw a revival of his work, as a strong new album, When The Circus Comes To Town (1995), coincided with the release of his back catalogue on CD. Younger artists such as Bernard Butler and Johnny Marr lined up to laud and collaborate him, and his profile was maintained for a while by two documentaries, a biography and two more critically acclaimed albums. Heart surgery and an operation for lung cancer slowed him down in the mid-’00s, but he continued to play occasional shows, and toured the US with Neil Young in 2010.
He is survived by his third wife, Loren Auerbach, and two sons, Kieron and Adam.
Bert Jansch, folk musician, b. 03.11.1943, d. 05.10.2011.