When pioneering singer-songwriters discovered the acoustic guitar in the early ‘60s, they revolutionised popular music. Graham Hazelwood talked to the original folk guitar legend Bert Jansch in 2006 about Beth Orton, Bernard Butler and Johnny Marr, as we revisit this classic interview.
‘Id always known that I wanted to play the guitar,’ he begins. ‘One of the teachers at my primary school brought in a Spanish guitar, and that was where I first actually touched one. This was the ‘50s, and seeing a guitar was quite a rare event. That gave me direction.’
As a teenager, Bert’s imagination was fired by the local musicians in his folk club and the imported music of American guitarists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He abandoned school and busked around Europe for two years, only returning home after catching dysentery in the beat hangout of Tangier. Bert headed for London, with its exploding folk music scene and drinkable tap water, where his innovative guitar playing and bohemian lifestyle quickly earned him iconic status.
‘In my case I actually started teaching guitar,’ he recalls. ‘There was always a quest of knowledge, and if you heard a Brownie McGhee song or something, you’d strive to emulate him. In the beginning it was just a fascination for the kind of music you could play. Everybody was just starting out, or so it seemed. You could go and meet people who were like-minded in guitar or songs, whatever they were into. It wasn’t like going to a folk club and then going back home, and you weren’t aware of it being a movement of any kind, not until much later. There wasn’t a question of becoming famous or anything. That was the last thing on your mind in those days.’
The Folk Revival was sweeping London, but traditional folk clubs still snubbed guitars. When Bert met an equally young John Renbourn on the ‘modern folk’ circuit, the two became friends and formed a constructive musical partnership. John founded the Horseshoe folk club on Tottenham Court Road, and the two often played there as a duo.
‘When we started at the Horseshoe, John and myself had been dabbling as a duet,’ he says. ‘We did the Bert And John album and Jack Orion and a few others. I played on his album and he played on mine. Then we decided that we should try and develop a band. We just invited various musicians along to have a crack at it, and also have a good time. It wasn’t like auditioning for a band or anything. It just sort of developed. There were the two guitars, and John tended to play the lead. I wasn’t very good at lead anyway, and it all just fitted into place.’
The group they formed was The Pentangle, more commonly known as ‘Pentangle’. Their first gig outside the Horseshoe was London’s prestigious Royal Festival Hall, and for the next seven years they toured the world as folk royalty. Bert plays down their success, claiming that the only other true folk group in existence at the time was The Ian Campbell Folk Group.
‘In a way, that was why it slowly fell apart,’ he sighs. ‘We got so close, seven years of living in each other’s pockets. There were no outside influences. We were doing two-hour shows and not meeting another band. It was only occasionally when we were on a bill with somebody else.’
When The Pentangle broke up in 1973, Bert bought a farm in Wales but continued to record solo albums. In 1982, he rejoined original singer Jacqui McShee in a new line-up of the band, and stayed until 1995. Bert’s self-effacing reputation is well founded. He shies away from the spotlight and is unsure of what his public persona might be. In fact he doesn’t seem particularly interested.
‘I suppose I have an image of some kind,’ he agrees. ‘But whether it’s a good one or not, I don’t know. I’m too close to it. I know a lot of people try to learn the guitar from me.’
Although he still enjoys performing, Bert prefers to play smaller, more intimate venues. ‘I’ll play to anybody in the front room here or whatever,’ he declares. ‘I like concerts in an enclosed area where I can actually hear the guitar. Once the guitar starts drifting about in the open air, I never quite enjoy that. I like to go and listen to other people at festivals, but to actually play them is a different matter. I’ve played at quite a few nice ones. Vancouver is always nice. I play to 200 or 300 people in the afternoon, then in the evening I play on another site at the same festival. If the gig is too big my bottle goes, so I can’t really handle the bigger festivals. I get physically sick at the sight of too many people.’
Despite his musical credentials and his preference for enclosed spaces, Bert has never attempted the highly disciplined world of sessions. ‘I couldn’t actually focus enough on a style of guitar that people would ask for,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ve never been very good at that. I try to emulate some blues players, but I’d always have my influence – or lack of getting it right, which always applies in my music! It becomes too much ‘me’ rather than a session player. I’ve always liked the well-known session players who can play virtually anything. I’ve always been in awe of people like that.’
Bert’s individualism stems partly from his playing style. He employs a number of techniques, often playing with a “clawhammer” – a fingerpicking style that originated in banjo playing and which involves striking the strings downwards with the fingernail. He also bends strings as a way of reaching sharp or flat notes, and often adds 9ths into arpeggiated chords to create a “lumpy” sound. A good example of this is the haunting ‘Needle Of Death’ from his groundbreaking debut album, Bert Jansch (1965).
‘In my early days, I tried to learn everything at once, so it just developed out of that I suppose,’ he suggests. ‘With my playing, I’ve always tried to emulate people like Doc Watson, and the amazing touch he had. I don’t try to emulate his technical side, just the feel of it. With me it’s not so much the actual guitars, it’s the song as well. For me, they develop in the same breath. Depending on what type of song you’re trying to create will dictate the mood of the whole thing.’
Apart from the occasional dropped D, Bert is a standard tuning man, and doesn’t use blues or slide tunings. He plays with a thumb pick, allowing his hand to get closer to the guitar than with a flat pick and making it easier to damp the strings.
‘When I first started, I saw a film of Big Bill Broonzy playing a nightclub in Paris,’ he explains. ‘The one thing that struck me about Big Bill Broonzy was his thumb pick. I always assumed that to play like him you had to use a thumb pick. It was completely the wrong assumption! A lot of blues players use a flat pick rather than a thumb pick, but I didn’t know that.’
Bert has always written most of his own material. He claims that he composes simply by playing the guitar until something emerges. ‘Unless I’m writing for somebody else with an idea in mind, as I used to in The Pentangle,’ he adds. ‘If you weren’t doing that, you just let it develop. Some of the songs just appear out of nowhere, and they’re usually the best songs. You don’t actually have much control over it. Before you know it, you’ve got a whole song in a short space of time. Yet other songs I’ve been playing for 10 years and then suddenly one day they’ll click. It’s a strange business.’
‘I have my own modest studio here,’ he continues. ‘It’s good because I can actually take my time working, and as ideas come up, I can record them straight away. The main thing is not having to rely on two or three weeks of recording time, everything crammed into that period. That’s always been the way of doing it before – do all the writing and then have two weeks or so booked into the studio. At least I can record it and have a listen, so it’s an ongoing process. I think most musicians work that way.’
Bert’s new album, The Black Swan, is his first release in four years. It offers a typical mix of personal and philosophical songs that he has created from his own experience, and is peppered with musicians he has encountered on his travels, notably fellow singer-songwriter and guitarist Beth Orton.
‘Johnny Marr kept saying that Beth was a fan of mine and I should listen to her,’ he explains. ‘I was doing a gig in London which she was on the bill and we got to know each other. Since then I’ve been giving her guitar lessons. When I meet someone and hear them play, that’s when I get interested in their music. I suppose it’s a throwback from the old folk days because you tended to get to know people, but to actually hear them sing and play, it was all a complete package. So when I meet somebody and see them perform, it develops from there. It’s got nothing to do with fame. It could be the guy two streets away who just happens to be in the folk club.’
Bert is still a musician rather than a lyricist, and the title track is typically obscure. Like many good songs, it’s a metaphor for whatever you want it to be. ‘There are a lot of levels to it which will probably remain hidden away,’ he confirms. ‘But on the surface it’s just a futuristic journey travelling in a spaceship or whatever. It’s called The Black Swan and it just travels in a huge circle and never stops.’
Bert is playing live again after recovering from the heart surgery which delayed the album by a year. One of his remaining ambitions is another hookup with Bernard Butler (Suede, The Verve, The Tears). ‘I’d like to push that one because the gigs that we’ve done have always been great, and good fun to do,’ he announces. ‘For Bernard it’s a different departure from the gigs he’s used to! Also I’d really like to do an instrumental album. That’s the sort of thing I can take my time at. A lot of people in the acoustic world complain that there are too many people on my album, and not enough of me! Players were asked to play and they were sympathetic to what was there already.’
I suggest that the purists will turn their noses up at it anyway. ‘They always do,’ he mutters. The Bert Jansch legacy is a hugely impressive catalogue of virtuoso guitar playing and a long list of inspired musicians including Neil Young, Jimmy Page and Acoustic’s own Gordon Giltrap, whose tribute mini-album Janschology (2000) contains six of Bert’s best-loved tracks. As a more formal recognition of his contribution and influence, Bert has recently been awarded the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and the Mojo Merit Award.
‘It does tend to get a bit embarrassing when it’s taken to that degree, but it’s very nice,’ he admits. ‘I suppose it seems that my life hasn’t been wasted. Like most people, I wish it was something else, but when things like this happen, it makes me think it’s not too bad after all.’
Bert Jansch passed away on October 5 2011, leaving a score of guitarists he influenced in his wake.