Tessa Ewart on Bert Jansch and the forgotten voices of folk
“He completely re-invented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequalled today…without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the ‘60s and ‘70s would have been very different. You hear him in Nick Drake, Pete Townshend, Donovan, The Beatles, Jimmy Page and Neil Young. There are people playing guitar who don’t even realise they’ve been influenced by him one step removed”
– Johnny Marr
Although some decades apart, whenever I hear of our much name-dropped local Fence Collective, I am often reminded of another perhaps more exciting scene that emerged in the quiet bars and folk cafes of unassuming southern and central Scotland way back in the 1960s. It too was far away from swinging London and the Mersey beat, or whatever you would call the hipster modern equivalents. The idea of groups of low key musician social circles casually meeting and possibly starting off popular musical movements is a romantic and exciting notion, and gives hope yet for many a budding open-miker who despite performing alone may find a collective success through being part of ‘a scene’.
Prime exponent of the Scottish 60s folk scene, Bert Jansch was to take on the mantle of archetype scruffy troubadour, leading (at least commercially and in poster-boy stakes) the Scottish folk revival scene. Drawing on older buddies such as Davy Graham and slightly less jarring than his eccentric friends The Incredible String Band, he would rise in parallel (though obviously much overshadowed by) Bob Dylan, and be out-popped by Donavan. Having been a fan of Bert Jansch’s music for a good few years now, despite his great influence since the British folk revival of the ’60s/’70s, I feel many people these days will not have heard of him. One only needs to look to the words of iconic guitar legends Johnny Marr, Paul Simon or Jimmy Page to realise Jansch’s influence not just on their style and success but modern music as a whole.
Although born in Glasgow, Jansch grew up in Edinburgh, where he was introduced to the likes of Woody Guthrie and American blues singer Brownie McGhee, who remained a strong influence throughout his career. When he was only 17, he decided to become a full-time musician, and proceeded to quit his job as a gardener (good move) strung a guitar around his neck, and began playing in a variety of local folk-clubs and dodgy bars and in true freelance style, he hitch-hiked up and down the country to play these venues. During this time he became friends and shared a flat with fellow Scottish folk icon Robin Williamson, co-founder of The Incredible String Band, a psychedelic-folk ensemble of sitars, wailing violins, bongo drums – you get the idea… a spiritual frenzy of sound.
In the mid-60s, Bert settled down in London to seek his fortune. His brilliant first self-titled album, released in 1965 really proves what he’s all about, and is still hailed as one of his best albums. His strong, intricate plucking style and unusual melodies, carrying strong hints of blues show his exceptional guitarist abilities. Be it the haunting Dreams of Love or the swinging Strolling Down the Highway his music is captivating and diverse – drawing on many influences, but quintessentially Bert. Some have even named him as the ‘British Bob Dylan’ – I know what I think about that, but I’ll let you make your own mind up. Perhaps his most famous accolade is his version of the Davy Graham song Angie which has perhaps become the Stairway to Heaven of all young folk guitarists – often being the song everyone tries to master and impress others by.
This type of folk music is based heavily on traditional melodies and lyrics, but musicians like Jansch and Williamson put their own unique stamp on it, whether it being blues, psychedelic or electric rock. These artists reached their peak of their popularity in the late 1960s or ’70s, and only really lasted a short while at the top, but acquired a devoted and loyal fanbase whilst there.
Ok, so I may be 50 years too late, and sadly Jansch passed away just last year, but I feel it’s important to get music like his more known, lest it be smothered in more flashy ’60s pop nostalgia and buried beneath a big heap of Beatles and Stones (haw haw). Bert, in my mind, seems to be under-acknowledged – especially as a Scottish artist. The music industry has a lot to owe him and his fellow musicians from that ’60s Scottish folk circuit and it’s about time their legacy is not just contained in some dusty old case at the back of your Dad’s CD collection. To save you fishing out such a dusty CD, check out his songs/versions of Angie (a must), Soho (with his pal John Renborn) and why not try Blues Run The Game. You can pretend that your massively uncool St Andrews bedroom is in fact a boho folky hang out! Or for you readers who like to try your hand at songwriting, maybe you can allow Bert’s meticulous craft to inspire something new in yourself. It shouldn’t be hard. When all is said and done, only the music remains, and with it, Bert’s legacy truly will be with us forever.
Image credit – Greg Neate.