Bert Jansch, R.I.P.


Influential British folk guitarist Bert Jansch, 67, passed away on Wednesday night in London from lung cancer. Having watched Jansch in performance when he opened for Neil Young just over five months ago, it’s shocking to say the least: “while Jansch’s singing voice at times came out murmured and indistinct, his finger-picking was stable and crystalline,” I noted back in April. That night, each note pealed like a bell, making his formidable skills apparent to the audience.

Born in Glasgow, Jansch grew up in Edinburgh and dug deep into American folk music of the time, devouring the records made by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie while also absorbing the influences of jazz players like Charles Mingus and Jimmy Guiffre. When Jansch emerged on the London folk scene in the early ’60s, his playing was a revelation. As noted in Colin Harper’s 2006 book Dazzling Stranger:

He was listening to jazz, country blues, modern blues and everything else. There were lots of people working in one area or another but nobody before Bert was actually putting them all together and blending them in that way… he just appeared fully formed.

Jansch’s name might not resonate much with classic-rock fans, but it’s safe to say that the genre bears his fingerprint, due in no small part to the influence he wielded on its biggest stars. The two most obvious disciples of Jansch’s strong, indelible picking style are Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Neil Young; both appropriated some of Jansch’s earliest recordings in finding their own voice. Compare Jansch’s 1966 recording of a song composed with one-time girlfriend/ folk singer Anne Briggs called “Black Water Side” with Page’s solo acoustic cut on Led Zeppelin’s first album, “Black Mountain Side.”

Bert Jansch, “Black Water Side”

Led Zeppelin, “Black Mountain Side”

And Jansch’s harrowing 1965 side “Needle of Death” lent itself to Young’s own meditation on drugs and death, 1972’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

“Needle of Death”

“The Needle And The Damage Done”

But Jansch also greatly affected artists like Paul Simon and Donovan as well as later generations of listeners—The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, singers like Beth Orton, Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom. And while he was a force on the ’60s folk scene, as his disciples and their loud rock eclipsed the acoustic music, Jansch teamed with guitarist John Renbourn for the folk-rock supergroup, Pentangle, which enjoyed success until their disbanding in the early ’70s.

Pentangle, “House Carpenter”

Jansch’s profile diminished stateside through the ’80s but his last album, 2006’s elegant The Black Swan, brought him back to the US. I felt fortunate to catch the man when he played Southpaw on the tour supporting that album; I then realized that Jansch’s greatness is deceptive, in that he defers always to the song at hand. I wrote then:

Yes, he’s the “Hendrix of the Acoustic,” as Neil Young said, as Jimmy Page verified by basing III and Zoso’s folk weirdness on the man, yet it’s always inside the song itself, never extraneous. One would be hard-pressed to point to an iconic guitar solo or a flashy run by the man. As Colin Harper wrote: “(There’s) a transcendent quality to the work implying that, at its heart, the work itself is the foreground and the creator a barely visible presence facilitating the construction of something magical.”

Today, that work remains, while its creator has disappeared from this world. Rest in peace.

Bert Jansch, “The Black Swan”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2011

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