The 20th anniversary release of Acoustic Routes is a celebration of Bert Jansch, one of the most notable acoustic guitar players the world has seen. The original Acoustic Routes film has been re-mastered and rereleased on DVD, with Billy Connolly at the helm. We talk to producer Jan Leman, and some of the stellar cast of folk musicians who made this film, documenting the life of Bert Jansch.
Bert Jansch was a man whose music touched the hearts and minds of a lot of guitarists, but without touching the charts very often. When I was a teenager first learning guitar, I used to borrow books about the instrument from the library, and Bert Jansch was always mentioned as the acoustic guitarist, greatest of them all. Despite this, I had never seen him on TV, he wasn’t in my dad’s record collection, and I never came across his work in any record shops I used to haunt obsessively. In 1993, documentary maker Jan Leman decided it was time to do something about that criminally low profile, and the documentary Acoustic Routes, presented by Billy Connolly and focussing on Jansch, but featuring a cast of legends from Brownie McGhee to Anne Briggs, was born. The documentary brought many of the denizens of the London folk scene of the 60s back together in their old haunts, and featured rare period footage as well as new performances from some great combinations. It was released on VHS, and shown a little on TV, but 20 years later, and with Jansch sadly no longer with us, Leman finally achieved something this year that he’s been trying for years to do, and got the movie rereleased. It’s a story that highlights enduring friendships, perfectly painting the world in which Bert lived – a musician who went on to inspire countless generations of musicians, including Neil Young and Bob Dylan. We caught up with him, and various members of the cast, prior to the film’s anniversary release.
Tell me a little about your history and what led you to make the film Acoustic Routes…
Jan Leman: I work as a film director and editor of documentaries, and have done for about 25 years, but it was my friendships with Bert and Ralph that were the starting points for the movie. When I got to know Bert in the late 1980s, it just seemed absurd that these guys, who were really the people making our indigenous music, were being ignored. Really Bert is a primary source of music for the UK; his story was known, but not widely told, and I had got to know Bert, I would drive him to gigs and agreed that we would make some recordings and research. It became clear that there was a set of people we needed to interview; I tried to raise enough money for the film, but nobody was interested, and in the end we said, “Sod it, let’s just make it”. I saved up enough to do a pilot day in Edinburgh, and with the results of that, we managed to pick up some more funding, and Ralph managed to persuade Billy Connolly to get involved, and with that confirmation it became a lot easier to secure money to continue. A key destination of what we wanted to do was to reunite Bert and Brownie McGhee; it was Brownie coming to play in Edinburgh, and Bert going to see him at 15 or 16 that had lit the touchpaper for Bert’s career. For me, that meeting remains a highlight of the film.
You interviewed some publicity shy people for this, notably Anne Briggs. Was it hard to get their permission?
Jan Leman: Yes and no. When we drew up the list of people we wanted, Anne was very near the top of the list, and it was only her close friendship with Bert that made it possible. You’re right, though, some of these people are so very shy, but it was a testament to the trust that we’d built up, and more than that, the respect in which Bert is held, that Anne was willing to get involved.
How did you track down some of the early footage of the likes of Davy Graham and Jackson Frank? what were the challenges involved in getting permission to use it?
Jan Leman: The Jackson Frank thing is partly because I’d had the experience of how to find things in the BBC archive, and we had a really excellent researcher called Jeannie Clarke. Jackson’s piece of film was actually earmarked for destruction, and it only survived because some cards got switched around, but the girl in the background lighting up a cigarette is Sandy Denny, who Jackson was dating at the time! Apparently more early stuff of Bert in Denmark has reappeared since, but that remains the only footage of Jackson Frank in existence. The Holy Grail would have been to find some footage of Madhouse in Castle Street, the play that Dylan appeared in, but we weren’t able to find anything like that. The Davy Graham piece was from an early edition of Monitor, and so that was easy to find, since the BBC had fortunately not decided to get rid of it.
Many documentary makers make themselves the narrator; what made you choose Billy Connolly?
Jan Leman: It’s not about me, and it was never about me. I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but if I have a purpose at all, it’s that I can be a conduit for other people to tell their stories.
Has the meaning and importance of this documentary changed for you in the 20 years since its first release?
Jan Leman: The reason for revisiting the whole film was that I made a promise to Bert, in the last few months of his life, that I would get Acoustic Roots out again, and that’s what I’ve fulfilled. We tried on the 10th anniversary, we tried again when he went on tour with Neil Young, and we couldn’t do so, but the 20th anniversary was the next milestone. It’s so sad that Bert couldn’t be there at the end, but he knew it was being done, and for me, it was a moral obligation. Releasing material 20 years down the road, it just strikes me is just how bloody good some of it is. We didn’t do multiple rehearsals; our approach was shooting on a single camera, for cost reasons, the majority of the music is first or second take; the stuff with Brownie was, for instance, completely unrehearsed, and because of that it has some raw moments, but it also has a real, visceral quality that you don’t get in other ways.
What made you give up your time to make this movie?
Billy Connolly: Because he was the most unlikely friend I’ve ever had; I like his music, and I liked being his pal. Most of his friends were quiet guys who played really good guitar; I’m crap, I can’t even play that opening lick for ‘Anji’, been trying for 45 years. I just thought it would be nice to spend some time with him, and I thought it would provide some balance, because all the other guys are so quiet and I’m the loudmouth. He knew me well enough to trust that I wouldn’t be taking the piss. Well, maybe a bit, but at least not leaving him dangling.
Ralph McTell: First of all, I was so flattered that Bert and Jan wanted my contribution, because I’ve got enormous admiration for Bert on almost every level; I would have been put out if I hadn’t been asked! Now, releasing it, it’s just lovely to see Bert looking well, and all the people involved. I remember it so well, Bert having survived major surgery, picking up the pieces and moving on. He was definitely on the road to something, and it was so nice to see all that again. He seemed to me, surprisingly overwhelmed by Brownie McGhee, but Brownie and Sonny Terry were very important up in Scotland. I’m not one of those who calls Bert a jazz or blues guitarist, because he wasn’t; he played some blues songs, but it was all the same songs that the rest of us played, from those few records that we could get. There is a slow, thoughtful melancholy in his writing; it doesn’t have the energy that some music has. Bert’s approach was incredibly complex, but not high energy; I hesitate to call him a genius; he undoubtedly was, but he wasn’t one of those people for whom it all flowed easily. When he used to write, he would play the same difficult phrase over and over again until he had the muscle memory down. Then he’d work on another piece, and try to glue them together; when he used to play with a band, if he dropped the tune, he’d wait until the whole band came round to that section, and pick it up again.
Duck Baker: Well, an honest answer is that for a lot of us, it was a positive thing for us to do from the point of view of getting our names around and so on. For me, an awful lot of people saw it who didn’t really know me. I lived in London in the late 70s and early 80s, and knew all those guys, and hung around and played with them a lot. As far as promoting it, we were all sad that Bert had left the stage before the reissue, but Jan had been trying to get a rerelease, and it was only when Bert went that they got interested. We were glad that it got the chance to be revived, and it was a fun occasion to go and see some people I don’t see any more, people that perhaps I was only seeing at Bert’s funeral and Davy’s; it’s nice to see those people in happier circumstances.
Wizz Jones: Well, like everyone will tell you, it’s the love of Bert and his music. He was so important to everyone in London when he arrived; taking it on even further than Davy Graham, with all these melodic counterpoint things going on. I think we all thought the world should know more about him, but it was also about Bert’s generosity.
What does Bert Jansch mean to you, and why is it important that people hear about him?
Billy Connolly: He was a one-off; people have often compared him to Davy Graham, but he wasn’t like Davy at all; you couldn’t have another one like him. His voice was like that Indian instrument, the shehnai; for me the song, and the tone of his voice, and his guitar, and the slapping were just all of a piece. Davy was handsome, and could explain his songs very well, whereas Bert would shuffle around and sound awkward like it was none of your business what the song was about. People wanted to be Bert, they wanted his qualities, he just wanted to play, and if you liked it, great, and if you didn’t, he didn’t really give a damn. He just couldn’t be bothered to explain it; if you didn’t get it, he probably felt sorry for you. Bert was great with the women too, magazines want you to think that they all like guys called Steve who drive MGs, but they don’t, they often like the guy who stands on his own; they want to stand with him. Women are weird.
Ralph McTell: Well, first of all, I said in the documentary that he had it all. He was irresistible to women, with his Sixth Form grammar school look; tousled hairstyle, no interest in style at all, and he had an authority, because he had this guitar style that nobody else could do. And, of course, in later years we realised that he was also a wonderful poet, and wrote endless songs about love and entrapment and needing to be free, but really, he wasn’t a man who needed to travel all the time. I love the recklessness of the fact that he didn’t have a guitar to make his first album on; he had to borrow one! He also wasn’t a man for talking; I remember asking John Renbourn in the 60s “What’s he like?”, and John said, “He’s invisible. You can’t see him ‘til you put a guitar in his hands, and then the guitar is all you can see”. We just loved him; his playing, his songs, all the girls he got, and probably we were envious of his purity of thought.
Duck Baker: I was a kid growing up in Virginia, and Vanguard put out a record called Lucky 13, which was basically Needle of Death with a couple of other tracks, which I bought without really knowing what it was. I put it on in a listening booth, and it really got me; a lot of American guitarists learned ‘Anji’ from that record. When I came to the UK I met Bert, and it’s always great to meet people whose records you’ve listened to, and I got to know Bert quite well. At the time that film was made, it was a great time for Bert; what was important was how Bert had taken playing guitar to accompany songs such a long way, and in such a technical way at the time, but he had also become a great songwriter. I don’t like when people think of Bert as just a great guitarist, and forget about the singing and songwriting. At that time he had quit drinking, and was going through a very creative period, and seeing that movie really brought it all back.
Wizz Jones: Because he was so original, and he did influence so many people, but in my case, I recognised a very kindred spirit. He was sitting up in Edinburgh listening to the same records I was, but it’s about recognising that he was the real thing. In recent years he has had more recognition, but it always has been a bit of an underground thing. Nick Drake was in the same place, but a commercial picked up one of his songs, and the next thing you knew, he was getting more attention.
Why do you think big money commercial success evaded the artists in the movie, when those they influenced, like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, made so much money?
Billy Connolly: It was down to one thing – airplay. Dylan and Paul Simon had a more commercial sound, and played the game better, and were managed by more ruthless people. People say this about me, you know, that I must be ambitious, but I was dragged out of the folk clubs into the concert halls, I didn’t want to do it, but my manager pushed me, and I just showed up. I think it made Bert into a particular type of person that I remember with great fondness. He was always with these wee record labels like Transatlantic; if you’re with them, you’re a big secret. You’d find them in anarchist and communist bookshops, but never on the big rack in HMV with a tab with your name on it.
Ralph McTell: Well, I think Bob, without a doubt, is his own artistic genius; the folk music was another stepping stone to where his own creativity was going to take him. He really was taking that folk narrative tradition to another place. Paul Simon, on the other hand, always had his eye on being a commercial songwriter. Bert was much more pure; he could have chosen to plug in an electric guitar, but he never stood up to play, he was always very anchored, and in his way, he was more of a rebel than any of those guys. You could never get Bert to do anything he didn’t want to do. In terms of lack of commerciality, I think that Danny Thompson had seen Pentangle as a real opportunity to make a dent in the commercial world, and I think if Bert had taken the opportunity to be the English Dylan, a role that eventually got handed to Donovan, people would have been prepared to back him, but he just didn’t want to know. He picked the hard road, and he took it.
Duck Baker: The music business is a fickle business, but the majority of people who are serious musicians are never going to make it, because there’s just not enough interest. If you’ve got something that can be marketed on the mass market, like Dylan, then you can become huge, but someone like Martin Carthy or Davy Graham might mean more to me, but they don’t have that mass appeal. If you’re trying to play music for its own sake, then you’re crazy to think you’re going to become successful with that. I remember Davy saying that he wouldn’t have liked to have been famous. He didn’t mind having a reputation amongst musicians, but to not be able to walk down the street, like Dylan or Paul Simon, he didn’t want. People like Ralph McTell, and Bert when he was in Pentangle would manage to have a big record, and then you get a momentum that’s very hard to get out of.
Wizz Jones: Certainly in Bert’s case, he loved getting people together, but he was very reticent, and came across as a bit withdrawn. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you don’t have the right personality to deal with the press, you’re going to struggle. Also, it has to be said that he drank; I mean we all did, but some came through it better; I would think that was part of why Bert died so young by today’s standards. Touring is such heavy going, and when he was with Pentangle he was working so hard, I do think perhaps you turn to stimulants.
Jan Leman: When Dylan came to the UK, he already had a growing reputation, but what is interesting is the fact that so many of these people we take for granted like Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Young all came to London because they knew something was happening. This really starts with Brownie McGhee coming to the UK, because he couldn’t get any work in the States due to his association with Woody Guthrie and the Red Scare. Bert, in particular, and also Davy Graham, were the guys who picked up on that music and started to do something with it, and then you’ve got Dylan and the rest coming to the UK, listening to Bert and Martin and so on and taking it back to the States, so it was a triangle.
We arrived in LA just on the day that the Rodney King trial verdict came out, and it was just too dangerous to be in LA, so we had to get out. We decided to head up and see Brownie, but even though he was expecting us, you can imagine that he might not have been pleased to see all these white guys turn up at his house under those situations, but in fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. We did try to set up interviews with Dylan, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page, and so on, but in the end, we got so fed up with the management companies that we thought we would focus on people who really wanted to be involved. We rearranged our schedule three times to accommodate the possibility that Jimmy Page might agree to be in the same room as Bert, we lost cancellation fees on flights and so on, and ultimately, he just didn’t do it.
How would you like Bert to be remembered?
Billy Connolly: Exactly as he is; as a very quiet, shy man, who was complete within himself. He didn’t require the great commercial machine to make a living, he was perfectly happy wandering along. The last time I saw him, he was doing the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, and he did it very well, but he was the same guy; mumbling introductions because he didn’t want to do them, he just couldn’t wait to get on with playing the song. I met a woman this morning in my building who is a sculptor, and I think maybe Bert was a bit like that; nobody asked those guys how they do an arm, or if you ask Messi how he got past that player, he wouldn’t know. John Lennon used to get the Melody Maker, because he used to say “I like reading what my lyrics are about”. It was nice to be able to bring a bit of humour to Bert, because Bert and humour don’t often arrive in the same sentence. I’ve been sat with Bert and Ralph and I’d say a funny thing, and people would be falling about, and from Bert, you might just get a wry smile.
McTell: You know, to say someone’s an innovator avoids the fact that he was a great artist, and Bert was a great artist. He turned the guitar around; we must acknowledge Davy Graham as the grandfather of English fingerstyle guitar, but he took what Davy had shown him, and an approach rooted in traditional music, and he forged something fresh and new, and set a benchmark which will never be equalled. People will learn to play Bert Jansch songs, but nobody else could have invented that style. I think that anyone who wants to learn to play guitar should listen to Bert.
Duck Baker: From my point of view, you had something happen in the folk acoustic world focussed around people playing and singing in this country. It centred on people like Davy Graham, Bert, John Renbourn and Martyn Carthy, but those guys developed a very different approach to how to accompany folk songs. And you know, Davy developed an approach to playing soul and jazz which was in some ways better than what the jazz guys were doing. But for me, where Bert took it even further was in his songwriting, because he was such a great singer, not a beautiful voice, but somebody who could really bring something out of a song. What these guys really meant to me, though, is who they are, and were, as people.
Wizz Jones: The way I think of it is that he won’t be remembered, because he never had a number one hit. And how long does that last? I don’t know; maybe his music will get into the jazz canon, and get played for the next 40 years, but because the standards are so high with young guitar players now, what he invented and created has been absorbed into the scene, so to young people playing now, it’s not that remarkable. I’d like him to be remembered for what he composed, songs like ‘Moonshine’, and arrangements of other people’s songs. The documentary was a labour of love, Jan wanted to do something to promote him, but it didn’t get the distribution, only got played once in an odd timeslot on BBC. In the intervening years, it acquired some sort of legendary status, people were asking each other for copies, and so it became possible to reissue it.
Jan Leman: Forever. He deserves to be remembered forever. I got an email from someone a few days ago who told me that on the day Bert died, she had added her sentiments to one of the tribute pages on the internet, “Rest in Peace Bert”, but after thinking about it, she felt that actually, the last thing any of us should want is for Bert’s music to rest in peace. These are the guys who transformed our musical landscape in this country, and across the world, and they are, for us, a primary source, and they need to be remembered.
The original 16mm film has been digitally re-mastered to include many previously unseen performances. The film is out now on DVD via Absolute Distribution, and in association with Leman Productions and Rommel Film e.K.