Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 3 November 1943, Glasgow; d 5 October 2011) Folk revival songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. One of the most influential British guitarists, he first came to prominence in the Edinburgh folk scene but, like contemporaries such as Mike Heron and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Jansch found international recognition after moving to London's hothouse scene; Jansch's gloriously slovenly playing was the stuff of nightmare for the formally trained but sweet dreams for the attuned. With unerring instinct he might add or deduct a half-bar or so from a twelve-bar blues, the dictionary definition of 'mistake' becoming a personal statement; he took risks with all the split-second timing and casual aplomb of a high-wire act.

His eponymous debut album on Transatlantic (recorded for £100, pin money even in 1964, stayed in the catalogue for decades, and like much of his work was reissued and recompiled; Woody Guthrie's 'Pretty Boy Floyd' springs to mind with its image of robbery at the end of a pistol or fountain pen, as well as 'Strolling Down The Highway', the early heroin lament 'Needle Of Death' (a song of social concern admitted to Sydney Carter's television series Hallelujah and later the blueprint for Neil Young's 'Ambulance Blues'), and a cover of Davey Graham's 'Angi' (spelling later standardized as 'Anji'). It Don't Bother Me '65 included. standouts 'Anti-Apartheid' and 'The Wheel' as well as the title track. The first two albums were combined on a single CD by Transatlantic/Castle Communications '96 (though 'Want My Daddy Now' and '900 Miles' from the second album were omitted). The second included John Renbourn on second guitar; they made Bert And John on Transatlantic '66 (reissued by Wooded Hill '96). Jack Orion '66 (reissued '97) was a model of artistic clarity and focus, including a startling rendition of Ewan MacColl's 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', but it was traditional material such as the title track, murder ballad 'Pretty Polly' and 'Black Water Side' (later purloined by Led Zeppelin with bogus credit to Jimmy Page) that showed Jansch's inspired powers. This was followed by the ultimately disappointing Nicola '67, including orchestrations by David Palmer (later of Jethro Tull) as well as both acoustic and electric guitars. Jansch and Renbourn would go on to become founding members of the folk-jazz supergroup Pentangle, although he continued to make solo albums during his tenure with this gracefully declining group. Birthday Blues '69 was above average for the period, recorded with Terry Cox and Danny Thompson from Pentangle, Ray Warleigh on flute and alto saxophone and Duffy Power on mouth-organ.

Moonshine on Reprise '73 (reissued on Fledg'ling '95) was a superior Jansch album, produced by Danny Thompson, the arrangements more involved than usual; contributors included Aly Bain, Dave Mattacks, Ralph McTell and Tony Visconti in settings of 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', 'Twa Corbies' and Dave Goulder's 'January Man' among others. Santa Barbara Honeymoon '75 on Charisma followed the superior LA Turnaround '74; one of the unique selling points of the latter was its Mike Nesmith connection. A period of sublime music followed with the Bert Jansch Conundrum: A Rare Conundrum '78 and ornithology of a different feather in Avocet '79 and Heartbreak '82.

In concert Jansch could display a worrying self-destructive tendency; the gigs were like a lottery: one time he would be comic drunk, the next he would soar like an angel. Various live and/or studio collaborations arose and disappeared over the next decade: he made After The Long Night mid-'80s with Loren Auerbach (reissued on Christabel '96) and worked with Martin Jenkins (who went on to work with Whippersnapper and with his wife Kalinka Vulcheva, the soprano voice of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, as the Vulcheva/Jenkins Incident) and drummer Pick Withers (later in Dire Straits). He worked again with Rod Clements as a duo; Clements had worked with Lindisfarne and was author of that band's anthemic 'Meet Me On The Corner'. Jansch's slightly disappointing Leather Launderette '88 on Black Crow mixied traditional and original material. The Ornament Tree on Run River '90 (reissued on Jansch '96) marked a return to form, concentrating on traditional material arranged by Jansch rather than overreaching with originals.

In the CD boom years much of Jansch's recorded output was repackaged in sometimes less than sensitive ways; due to the vagaries of international copyright legislation and Jansch's careless and carefree attitude towards business in his younger days (though it must be said that nobody then believed anyone could make a living let alone a career out of playing folk music), money did not pour in from this potential bonanza. Jansch, throughout a career that bellowed highs and lows, remained a superlative musician. Acoustic Routes '93 was a film documentary of his life, with the assistance of people such as Anne Briggs, Duck Baker, Martin Carthy, Billy Connolly, Archie Fisher, Davey Graham, Wizz Jones, Pete Kirtley, Albert Lee and Brownie McGhee; an excellent soundtrack on Code '90/Demon '93 featured most of these luminaries. Live At The 12 Bar Club on Northern Sky Music '96 was a limited edition concert souvenir released during a flood of back-catalogue material.

He had had heart surgery and was suffering from lung cancer when his body gave up the struggle.