It Don’t Bother Me
Published: December 28, 2011
Bert Jansch was in Baltimore not long ago, opening for Neil Young at the Hippodrome Theater in the spring of 2011. A stout, aging Brit who was never much for conspicuous stage presence, he reportedly failed to secure the attention of most of the Young fans in the house, despite his decades-deep songbook and astonishing guitar chops. But those songs and especially those chops made him a musician’s musician (see also: invited to open for a Neil Young tour) and a profound influence on generations of players, often whether they ever knew it or not. Those shows with Young were among his last before his death on Oct. 5 at age 67.
Jansch was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1943. His father, a laborer, left when he was young, and Jansch’s family never had much money. Growing up in Edinburgh and enchanted by the arrival of American blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, he made his own rudimentary guitar and taught himself how to play it. Once he left school and gained access to a more professional instrument now and then, he got really good. Literally bumming around the burgeoning British folk scene of the early ’60s, Jansch assimilated the interest in and knowledge of traditional tunes of the British Isles, but also the leavening of other influences, such as jazz and what would now be called “world music.” Still almost completely self-taught, he imbued his fleet finger-picking style with unusual time signatures and experimented with nonstandard tunings.
His 1965 self-titled debut album, recorded on borrowed guitars, made a splash, showcasing both his jaw-dropping playing (a version of fellow folk prodigy Davey Graham’s “Anji”) and his songwriting (“Needle of Death,” one of the first ’60s-era songs to address the ills of drug addiction). In fact, his early solo career showed his neo-folkie compeers how it was done, so to speak, as he stretched the parameters of trad material, an unshowy visionary. A young guitarist named Jimmy Page was especially enamored, absorbing aspects of Jansch’s polyglot style into his own playing and appropriating Jansch’s arrangement of the Irish tune “Down by Blackwaterside” for “Black Mountain Side” on the first Led Zeppelin album (composer credit: “Page”). Jansch also performed and recorded (and roomed) with fellow young guitar virtuoso John Renbourn, developing an intricate interplay dubbed “folk baroque”; the pair soon formed a band with other young adventurous folk luminaries. Pentangle expanded on Jansch and Renbourn’s stylistic advances—their blend of traditional music and their own songs, flavors of jazz and ethnic musics, alternate tunings and tricky, ever-shifting time signatures, and open-ended improvisations. Though not a commercial success in the United States, it was one of a handful of key bands of its moment.
Always ambivalent about fame, Jansch left Pentangle in 1973 (he would drop back in several times through later incarnations and reunions) and continued his ongoing solo efforts. While albums such as 1974’s L.A. Turnaround remain well regarded, his heavy drinking helped bog down both his life and career. By the early ’90s he was playing pub gigs in London, but a new generation of admirers and acolytes ranging from the Smiths’ Johnny Marr to freak-folk star Devendra Banhart talked up his older music and helped relaunch his career, a renaissance he enjoyed and kept going until the cancer he had battled for several years won out.
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