John Renbourn: The unlikely times of the godfather of English acoustic guitar
‘Well, you’ve got me for a while now so it’ll be Celtic misery for a long time, folks –aren’t you lucky? But don’t worry – Wizz [Jones] will be back soon.’
And with these typically self-deprecating words, John Renbourn launched into what turned out to be the last time I’d get to hear him perform his guitar magic. That he’s gone seems impossible to come to terms with. He was just one of those figures you assumed would always be out there. A guitar genius? Well, maybe. Certainly John’s mastery of guitar styles, everything from blues to early medieval music and jazz, was mind-boggling. And everything he performed, he performed with the kind of assurance that only comes from a lifetime of study.
But for a while he’d become sick of the relentless round of touring – particularly in the States – and it took an old mate like Wizz Jones to ease him out of his Scottish lair a couple of years back, and hit the road. But he’d always retreat to what he described as the “Scottish badlands”, and it was in the old converted chapel at Hawick, that on the morning of March 26 2015, he was found after a fatal heart attack.
Reflecting on his absence from playing live, ‘I’d just become grumpy,’ he told me earlier this year. ‘Just about everybody I was friendly with seemed to be popping off their perch, and I just got miserable; I didn’t particularly want to die out on the road with my capo on. The real pleasure I get out of music isn’t touring, it’s composing, and I wanted to do more of that; the folk singing, guitar playing bit is just what I do when I go out with Wizz. I get home and start writing out all kinds of mad stuff.’
John and I worked together over many years, and his first words to me would often be, “Well – how’re the blues and Junkyard Angels [my band] getting on?” Unlike many artists, John always had time for other people’s music, and was genuinely interested. And, of course as it turned out, about to turn out for a gig in Glasgow, he very nearly did die with his capo on.
John was born in Marylebone, London, in 1944, his earliest memories of his mother playing light classical pieces on the family piano, something which had also served as the family bomb shelter during air raids. At school he took music lessons with “a patient man named John Webber” who introduced him to early music, at the time something completely new to him, but something that would become a lasting influence on his playing.
‘My family all played something – there’s a picture of me when I was about five playing on the banjo, so I went through all kinds of stuff, all sorts of music. It was just in the early 60s that I was faced with the terrible dilemma of having to get a job, and finding myself preferring to travel and play.’
But it was skiffle music that for John, like most of his generation, was destined to exert a primal influence. ‘The big hit was ‘Freight Train’ which drew attention to Elizabeth Cotten’s original, as well as to the work of Leadbelly, Jesse Fuller, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. These players all came over to England and their guitar styles left a strong impression on a generation of young skifflers,’ he later recalled. ‘As soon as I left school, I went hitch-hiking, and met up with others trying to play like them. People like Mac McCloud, Gerry Lockran, Mick Softly and Wizz Jones were already well on the way, but we were all in awe of Davey Graham.’
As a kid, John was also obsessed with the music of blues singer Josh White, a musician “black listed” by the McCarthy era politicians in the US, and who sought sanctuary in Britain between 1950 and 1955. And this early love of blues music was something that also became a fixture in his musical palette.
‘My mother used to have to take me to see him when I was about 11 or 12, and I had this book The Josh White Guitar Method that came out in 1956 – I love blues playing. For me, it’s the sense of invention in a relatively simple form. It knocks me out to hear how players like T-Bone Walker, always sound so fresh, even though every single one of their phrases, has been regurgitated a million times by copycats.’
John’s first steel strung guitar was a Scarth, a little known British dance band instrument, that he once told me with a hint of pride, he still owned. ‘It cost me a fiver and was an object of wonder and beauty! It has an arched top and tailpiece, but with a round soundhole. It had its little idiosyncrasies – the action’s always gone up and down with the weather – something I found out could be counteracted by wedging a lollypop stick under the neck; but that all just added to its mystique. You don’t see too many like it any more. However, good steel-string guitars were few and far between with Harmony and Levin leading the field. I was living on an old boat on the River Thames and stringing together tunes based on picking patterns such as ‘Down On The Barge’ and that old Scarth served me well – featuring on the cover of my first LP, in the traditional “folk-singer-on-the-rubbish-dump” pose.’
In the early ‘60s, John attended – albeit infrequently – Kingston College of Art. ‘The art schools seemed to be turning out more musicians than artists at that time.’
Around the same time, he stumbled into the nascent London folk scene and loved to relate how the dyed in the wool traditionalists were not particularly enamoured of the new breed of bearded young upstarts. ‘There weren’t many folk clubs back then, just the horribly traditional ones, and we were looked upon as just a bunch of beach bums – and they hated us! They considered us a scourge, while they were all reviving these songs going back to ye olde England; people like us trying to play Leadbelly songs badly were just despised. It took the collaboration of Davey Graham and Shirley Collins to start to change that, but it was a rocky process. When the first record came out, I could just about survive playing clubs, and there were only a few good places, like the Bristol Troubadour, that didn’t have a traditional bias.’
John’s first paying gig was supporting American one-man band Jesse Fuller, a gig he described as “a dream”. ‘The students were having a massive do and they’d booked Wirral town hall. When I got there I looked for him, and there wasn’t a dressing room, just a big boardroom at the back of the stage where they had a long table and oil paintings – and massive comfy chairs. His Silvertone 12-string guitar was on the top of the table, and at that point I was thrilled just to be in the presence of this guitar. Then I heard a big snoring noise, and found Jesse asleep under the table. He was an old hobo, and preferred that to sitting on the couch!’
Possibly influenced by Davey Graham, John’s eponymous first album in 1965, was an unlikely mix; blues standards ‘Motherless Children’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘Louisiana Blues’ rubbed shoulders with original compositions and established folk club pleasers like ‘Candy Man’ and ‘John Henry’.
Around the same time he teamed up with Doris Henderson, a gospel singer from Los Angeles, who claimed she was friends with T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker. After playing around London clubs, the pair recorded an album in an afternoon, a mix of what John described ‘a bit of church, a bit of blues and possibly the first cover versions of a couple of Bob Dylan songs.’
But it was his pairing with guitarist Bert Jansch that was destined to shape his career for the next eight years. In the long defunct magazine Zig Zag, Jansch recalled how he and John first met up.
‘It was during another trip down from Scotland, and I was trying to find a place to stay. I’d somehow gotten involved – possibly as a result of working at Bunjies Coffee House off Charing Cross Road – with Les Bridger. He had a pad and so I naturally attached myself to him. I was staying at his place trying to avoid his cat that had a habit of shitting everywhere, when John Renbourn happened to come around with Doris Henderson. We got chatting and within a couple of months he’d moved in too.’
Bert Jansch had already made an album of guitar duets with Alexis Korner, then the godfather of the UK blues scene, but the pairing with John Renbourn was the beginning of a unique guitar partnership that to this day is still spoken about in hushed reverential tones.
But for John, despite the ground-breaking nature of his early records, his recording career was something he never seemed to consider seriously.
‘I was under Transatlantic’s wing, if that’s the right term, for most of my early recording career, and I have to say it was quite an experience. The label’s early music policy was a little on the hazy side. It would have been after Dixieland and skiffle but before the British folk scare, and the label became something of a catch-all for the mysterious “folk”, looser “unchartable” types like me. Transatlantic used to send out their recording engineer with a tape machine to capture the “authentic” sounds on location in deepest South London. Bert And John was recorded that way, with blankets tacked up in the hallway to keep out the noise of our neighbours. When Bert And John came to be re-released on CD, one of the selling points was the “vintage sound”,’ John would laugh as he recalled his lo fi early records.
Pentangle came into being in 1967, and from the outset there was an organic, if at times ramshackle feel about the band. Jacqui McShee was a traditional floor singer who had run into John and Bert when they’d performed at her folk club in Sutton, Surrey. Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums, both accomplished jazz musicians from the Alexis Korner band, completed the anomalous line up.
‘Asking Danny and Terry to join us was a good way of lasting out the all-nighters we were playing, but we found we had a lot of musical common ground, and called ourselves Pentangle after the emblem on Sir Gawain’s shield in the story of the Green Knight. The music was a loose mixture of all our influences, initially much of it improvised on the stand. Bert and I were both still under contract to Transatlantic as solo artists and the company, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to record the band,’ he said.
Pentangle’s light “trippy” folk music was undoubtedly right for those late flower power days. And after a disastrous Danish tour when they were billed as a rock band, Pentangle found themselves touring America, working alongside unlikely label mates like the Grateful Dead, and playing Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival. With their 1969 album Basket Of Light reaching number five in the charts, the future must have looked rosy. But the next few years saw the band involved in acrimonious disputes with their management, and in 1973 when Bert Jansch threw in the towel, the glory days were over.
As a solo artist, John found himself once again in great demand, but he didn’t enjoy the loneliness of the road – he loved to work with others.
Over the years, there were collaborations with Robin Williamson, Archie Fisher, Steve Tilston and Jacqui McShee among others, before the much-heralded Pentangle reunion in 2007, with the band receiving a Lifetime Achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
John was always a total maverick, and in his last interview with Cerys Matthews on BBC Radio 6 Music, he related how he came unstuck at one of Pentangle’s reunion shows. Eschewing conventional finger picks, John would cut up ping-pong balls and glue the slices to his fingers.
‘People tell me I’m living in the dark ages, but they work, there’s nothing too much wrong with them – apart from the fact that they’re flammable,’ he told Matthews. ‘But we were playing a big show at the Barbican, and as I was playing, one fell off. I was clever and I had some superglue with me and another one under the chair. I stuck it on, but I didn’t know if the glue was coming out or not, so I bit the top of the superglue, and I stuck my lips together.’
In 2010, C.F. Martin & Co. honoured John by bringing out a signature model bearing his name. ‘It’s a gem. The spec sheet tells a lot, but not all. The playability and sound are in the hyperbole class. I’m one lucky plucker.’
Gone but unlikely to be forgotten.
John Renbourn, born August 8 1944, died aged 70 at his home in Hawick, Scotland, on March 26 2015.