Obituary: Bert Jansch

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Bert Jansch – 1943 – 2011

Britain has produced many fine guitarists since World War Two; from classical guitarist Julian Bream to blues man Eric Clapton, from rock guitarists Robert Fripp and David Gilmour in the Seventies, to Johnny Marr in the Eighties and Graham Coxon in the Nineties. But none were as influential on modern music than the folk guitarist and singer Bert Jansch, who passed away last Tuesday, 5th October 2011.

Jansch’s distinctive and unique guitar picking style gained him the sobriquet ‘The Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar’, and he had a profound influence on folk musicians such as Donovan and Nick Drake, but also on rock musicians as diverse as Jimmy Page, Neil Young and more recent guitarists such as Coxon and Marr.

Born on the 5th November 1943 in Glasgow, Bert (Herbert) Jansch grew up in Edinburgh in a family whose ancestors had emigrated to Scotland from Hamburg in the 19th Century. He learnt to play the guitar while visiting folk clubs in and around Edinburgh, but was predominately influenced by the Afro-American blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. His guitar style is described as folk baroque, which is a technique of guitar picking influenced by ragtime, blues and jazz.

In the mid sixties, he moved to London where – due to the burgeoning appetite for non-mainstream music – he was quickly signed up to Transatlantic Records. Although his sparse and haunting albums of predominately original material did enjoy success, he didn’t make it into the higher echelon of the pop charts. Instead he came to inspire and affect the work of many major pop stars of the day, particularly Donovan (who completely changed his guitar style after hearing Jansch’s debut album) and the Beatles (check out ‘The White Album’). He also a profound influence on Jimmy Page, whose acoustic guitar playing was a mainstream interpretation of Jansch’s guitar style (many people would say that acoustic Led Zeppelin is a Bert Jansch tribute band), and of course Nick Drake, whose three studio albums owe everything to Bert Jansch.

In 1967, Jansch linked up with his musical partner and drinking buddy John Renbourn in an ensemble called (The) Pentangle, with folk singer Jacqui McShee and jazz musicians Danny Thomson and Terry Cox. Despite the late sixties being musically the most experimental of times in the 20th Century, Pentangle were like no other band. They were a rock band that fused folk music with jazz, blues and world music. And ironically for a rock band, they used only acoustic instruments (a simple drum kit, double bass, two acoustic guitars and occasionally sitar, glockenspiel, banjo and dulcimer). Pentangle’s music had a big impact on the British music scene and opened the door for subsequent folk rock acts such as Al Stewart, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Gerry Rafferty and, to a certain extent, Jethro Tull. These acts, however, never managed to achieve anything remotely similar to the critically well-received music of Pentangle. Despite their great acclaim, the band only recorded five studio albums and split up in January 1973, partly due to Jansch’s and Renbourn’s excessive drinking.

Bert Jansch spent the rest of the Seventies drifting between projects, and tried his hand out at farming and running a guitar shop, but he still recorded some albums of which ‘Rosemary Lane’ is probably his most well-known.

The eighties were an unhappy decade for Jansch. He spent most of his time drinking and going through the motions of being a musician until 1987 when he was rushed to hospital and given a choice of giving up drink or dying. He gave up boozing and both his musical capabilities and his fortunes changed. He started performing regularly again, but for the rest of his life he performed predominately in London due to chronic ill-health. He was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago and died in a hospice in London.

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