John Renbourn and Wizz Jones tell Acoustic about their early days on the hard road to Marrakech…
Words: Julian Piper Images: Pat Rafferty
‘There was one time I was in the States on a show with Doc Watson, and I made the mistake of including one of his songs in my set; I felt immediately embarrassed. After I’d finished, I made a point of finding old Doc and I apologised. Doc just leant back and said, “That’s alright boy, I didn’t hear anything I recognised…”’
As guitar legends go, you’d probably be hard put to find someone more self-effacing and down to earth as John Renbourn – airs and graces are not part of his vernacular. On the morning of our call, he admits to have been “stumbling around, with too many wine bottles to clear up.” Not that such an admission is startling, it hardly reeks of rampant decadence, but it’s possibly not what you expect to hear from a venerable guitar legend, especially at an age where he could well be expected to be bouncing grandchildren on his knee, and snatching an early night. But then, from his earliest days scuffling around London working as a kitchen porter, to playing at Carnegie Hall with Pentangle, you know that John Renbourn’s enjoyed everything life’s thrown at him.
A few years back, John announced he’d given up touring, so at a time when he appears to be working harder than ever, we wondered what had brought about this change of heart.
‘I just got grumpy,’ he laughs. ‘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.’
Holed up in the Scottish Borders, before settling down in this particular rural retreat, John had spent time in Oakland, California, a place he describes as “murder mile”. Quite a life change, but his domestic adaptability mirrors his music. From early days moulding his guitar work on the songs of icons like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, musicians he saw playing when still barely out of short pants. ‘I was obsessed with Josh White, 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.’
Classical guitar, jazz, and folk have effortlessly rubbed shoulders in his musical palette, but now he sounds like a man who’s found nirvana. ‘I’m down in the country where all the dropouts hang out, and it’s remote and really beautiful.’
And he’s equally happy about the fact that for the last few years he’s been hanging out with one of his best old mates, the quixotic Wizz Jones.
‘I met Wizz in the early 60s. He was being turned away from the Guildford British Legion club because his hair was down to his ass and he didn’t have shoes on. He looked Neanderthal and they wouldn’t let him in, even though he was booked to play,’ John chuckled. ‘Wizz was already a bit of a legend and was living down in Newquay, Cornwall.’
At Kingston Art College – an establishment he admits to visiting infrequently – he played in an RnB band with the intriguing name of Hog Snort Rupert’s Famous Porkestra. Unable to afford an electric guitar, he made do by borrowing one.
‘When I did get a guitar, it cost me a fiver, and if you’d ever seen me in those days, you would have realised that no one would have allowed me to get anything on hire purchase; I was a scuzzy looking bloke who often got turned away from restaurants.’
John’s guitar that later featured on the cover of his first album was a Scarth – a British-made dance-band instrument with an arched top. He still has it, but admits the guitar had its little idiosyncrasies. ‘The action went up and down according to the weather, but you could counteract that by wedging a lollypop stick under the neck, and I quite liked that as it added to its mystique. But good steel-string guitars were few and far between; it was a choice between buying a Harmony or a Levin.’
Following in the footsteps of Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell, all part of the heady, burgeoning Cornish folk scene, John headed west. ‘I was scuffling, trying to keep my head above water and get some bread together. I ended up in Brixham, and didn’t know where I was, but when I got there thought it was the kind of place where I might meet kindred spirits. I wound up standing on the quayside amongst the painters, and they pointed me to a pub called the Rising Sun, indicating that there were more types like me in there. Sure enough there were, and it was a revelation to meet other people in the world who were pretty similar; I’d meet guys who’d play like Big Bill Broonzy and Rambling Jack Elliott; we all shared the same idols.’
‘I ran into this guy called Matt McLeod who played good old blues, and we buddied up. Matt’s just found some recordings of us playing together in 1963, tapes with Davey Graham and Beverly Martin. A record company’s going to put them out next year. We were all in awe of Davey Graham. The first time I saw him was when he was with John Mayall, at the Wooden Bridge in Guildford; he was playing his Gibson guitar with a roundhole Dearmond pickup, pulling out beautiful riffs to this RnB stuff. It was fantastic.’
The folk scene that John stumbled into was not, as he well remembers, 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 Englande; people trying to play Lead Belly songs badly were just despised. When the first record came out I could just about survive playing clubs, and there were 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 describes 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 massive 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.’
Along with Davey Graham, John Renbourn was one of the first people around to start using alternative guitar tunings. ‘Davey Graham was a myth; he wasn’t considered human, just some kind of wandering legend, but I was making up tunings from the off. I’d hear Blind Willie Johnson playing in open D tuning, but knew that Matteo Carcassi also used tuning on parlour guitar tunes, which is how it got into the American tradition. I’d had classical guitar lessons and had taken my grades at the Guildhall, so I was au fait with the tunings that were used in early classical guitar, and just made up a few myself. It wasn’t common knowledge among the guys who were sitting around and trying to pick up things here and there, but the open G tuning dates back to the early 1800s, and if you could figure it out, you’d realise that they weren’t using standard tuning. Plus, back then, a lot of us didn’t know you could use a capo, so you ended up working things out in absurd keys!’
Half a century on, the laid back acoustic legend that is Wizz Jones ironically finds himself as the “doyen of the Cornish folk song society” as described by John, but it’s unlikely to have made any impression. Despite being mentioned by Eric Clapton and Keith Richards as being a primal influence on their own playing during teenage years in Kingston, such accolades cut very little ice. Interviewed on a BBC Radio Four morning news show recently by Evan Davis, impressed that Bruce Springsteen had begun a Berlin concert with Wizz’s song ‘When I Leave Berlin’, a note of incredulity crept into Davis’s delivery when he encountered Wizz’s lack of excitement at hearing about such a stellar event.
‘I’m lazy about everything which is why I don’t practise guitar, I’m just not a dedicated musician,’ he admits. ‘People like Bert Jansch got up in the morning and played all day, but I’ve never been like that. When you’re young and starting out, you chase fame, but if it doesn’t happen you have to get over all that, get into middle age and think, “Well, that’s alright, I’ve hardly written any songs but it works.” You get star struck at the beginning, and you really want to do it, but the people you admired had just as many problems as you. I used to sit at the feet of people like Rambling Jack Elliot and long to play the way he did, but years later when I could and was hooked doing it for a living, I met people like Jack, got to know them and record with them, and realised that they were just the same as me.’
Like Davey Graham, Wizz picked up his licks in Soho coffee bars during the 1950s before heading off on the European busking trail, eventually ending up in Marrakech. ‘I was a working class kid with no money and no way to travel, and the only way was to hitchhike and do some busking. There weren’t credit cards, no package flights; if you wanted to get somewhere, you had to hitch there.’
The mists of time have inevitably dimmed memories, but Wizz recalls first meeting John in 1965 at the Addlestone Folk Club. ‘This young guy got up and started playing all this stuff he’d learnt off the first Davey Graham album. I thought, “Bloody hell, he’s good…” Over the years I got to know him, I did the support on the last Pentangle tour. It’s great fun on the road with John; he doesn’t need to go out and do these smaller gigs, he has enough stature, doesn’t want to schlep around the country, but he does it with me because I know we have a good laugh. It’s very creative and nice to be involved with him. We’re supposed to be making a record together but with John living in Scotland and me in London, it’s a bit difficult,’ he laughs. ‘Touring with John is great because he has this reputation, attracts big audiences, most of whom have never heard of me before,’ Wizz admits. ‘They say, “Hello man, Wizz who are you?” And you just have to accept that because I’ve never had that sort of profile. I started playing guitar because of the music, I never thought I’d make a living doing it, and it wasn’t for lack of trying in the early years. I always laugh when people say, “Oh yeah, your friend Ralph [McTell], he’s got a number one hit but you’ve kept your street credibility.” I say, “Hang on a minute, it wasn’t for a lack of trying…” I took loads of what I thought were commercial ideas to the record company I was with at the time, and they didn’t want to know! I always knew you had to try and find some commercial success to justify sitting around playing guitar, even if it was just to put food on the table. I’ve been lucky that I’ve survived and got through it all, but I’m probably just copping out and making excuses; I am, by nature, a lazy person. People often ask me about guitars, and ask what other guitars I own. I tell them that I don’t have any others apart from the Epiphone Texan I play. I bought it in 1966 and have played it ever since. Why would I want any more?’
John Renbourn and Wizz Jones tour throughout 2015. John is also holding workshops, details of which can be found on his website.