Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 6, 2011

Bert Jansch, dead at 67

Filed under: national question,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

NY Times October 5, 2011

Bert Jansch, an Influential Folk Guitarist, Is Dead at 67


Bert Jansch, a guitarist whose blend of classical, jazz, blues and traditional British folk music inspired a long list of folk and rock guitarists in the 1960s and ’70s, including Donovan, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Paul Simon, died on Wednesday in London. He was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Jansch caused an immediate sensation with his first album, “Bert Jansch,” released in 1965. He was a mostly self-taught musician. And his idiosyncratic style, with its intricate finger work and bent notes, as well as his bold reinterpretations of traditional material, exerted a powerful influence on a generation of young guitarists. A founder of the progressive British folk group Pentangle, he remains an almost talismanic figure for today’s young artists like Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart.

“With the release of his first album in 1965 he completely reinvented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequaled today,” Johnny Marr, the former guitarist for the Smiths, wrote in a foreword to the paperback reissue of the 2000 book “Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival,” by Colin Harper. “Without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the ’60s and ’70s would have been very different.”

Mr. Jansch (the name rhymes with blanch) became obsessed with the guitar after a teacher in his elementary school in Edinburgh brought one in for a demonstration. His parents could not afford to pay for more than a few lessons, so he tried to construct his own instrument. “The second one I made was even playable, and I learned to chord a D on it,” he told Frets magazine in 1980.

After buying a guitar at age 15, he began listening to records by Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Lead Belly. Gradually he incorporated influences from classical music, jazz and traditional Celtic and British folk songs. He was particularly influenced by Davy Graham, another seminal guitarist, whose composition “Angi” (also spelled “Angie” and “Anji”) became the centerpiece of Mr. Jansch’s first album.

Mr. Jansch remained reserved about describing his style and how it evolved. “Everyone asks that but I’m sorry, it’s a mystery to me how it developed like this,” he told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday in 2004.

Neil Young, who included Mr. Jansch on his American tour last year, once called him the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix as an influence on guitar players. Donovan recorded a cover version of Mr. Jansch’s protest song “Do You Hear Me Now” on his “Universal Soldier” album and paid tribute to him with “Bert’s Blues” on the album “Sunshine Superman” and “House of Jansch” on “Mellow Yellow.”

Mr. Page, who succumbed to the spell of Mr. Jansch’s first album when it came out, did his own instrumental version of “Blackwaterside,” a traditional song from Mr. Jansch’s third solo album, “Jack Orion” (1966). Retitled “Black Mountain Side,” it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

Herbert Jansch was born on Nov. 3, 1943, in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh. After leaving school at 15, he became a fixture at the Howff, a local folk club. Two of the club’s regulars, Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson, future members of the Incredible String Band, encouraged him to break out of the narrow Edinburgh scene.

He made his way to London and performed on the streets and in small clubs. After recording “Bert Jansch” on a reel-to-reel tape deck, he teamed up with the singer and guitarist John Renbourn, his second guitarist on “It Don’t Bother Me” and “Jack Orion” and his duet partner on the influential album “Bert and John” (1966).

He and Mr. Renbourn began performing at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road with the future members of Pentangle: the singer Jacqui McShee, the acoustic bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The group made its debut in a sold-out performance at the Royal Festival Hall on May 27, 1967, and went on to become one of the most dominant folk groups in Britain. It was known for its innovative and eclectic style, which had a marked jazz influence, and for the complex intertwined guitar parts in the “folk baroque” style.

The group’s first album, “Pentangle,” was released in 1968, followed by “Sweet Child,” “Basket of Light,” “Cruel Sister,” “Reflection” and “Solomon’s Seal.”

On New Year’s Day 1973, Mr. Jansch left the group, whose members were buckling under the strain of five world tours. Retreating to a farm in Wales, he returned to a solo career and recorded the album “A Rare Conundrum.” In the late 1970s joined with the fiddler Martin Jenkins to form a duo, Jansch and Jenkins, which became Conundrum after adding the bassist Nigel Smith. For a time Mr. Jansch performed and recorded with various revived versions of Pentangle.

Drinking problems derailed his career for a time, but he rebounded in the 1990s with the album “When the Circus Comes to Town.” He later recorded two critically praised albums, “Crimson Moon” and “The Black Swan,” featuring younger folk-influenced artists.

Mr. Jansch’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Loren Auerbach, and two sons, Kieron and Adam.


  1. I don’t have personal knowledge of Bert’s music, but if he inspired Neil Young he had to be great.

    I’m a big fan of Young because his music spoke of injustice and can play very different musical styles with great success which is not an easy task unless you’re an accomplished musician with great talent.

    I’m sorry to hear of Bert’s passing as he was such an inspiration to so many.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 6, 2011 @ 8:43 pm

  2. I thought you might appreciate this program on KDVS during the early AM hours of Friday, 10/7:

    [Sounds Like Work

    Friday 10/7/2011 @ 4:00 AM – 6:00 AM

    Remembering a guitar legend…

    Bert Jansch passed away this week from a long battle with lung cancer. He was a member of the amazing British folk rock group Pentangle. Jansch also recorded some great solo records. More recently, he had toured with Neil Young, an enthusiastic fan; Young has credited Jansch as a strong influence on his work.]

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 7, 2011 @ 5:49 am

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