The great Bert Jansch

Every month or so, an old friend in England sends me a pile of clippings from British newspapers: things he thinks I’d like to read.  They’re eclectic but mostly about wine and music. Two nights ago, making my way through the latest batch, I found a piece from the March 6 Times by Billy Connelly, “My hero, a quiet guitarist called Bert.”

The “Bert” is, of course, Bert Jansch, one of my own musical heroes. If you haven’t heard him or know about him, I have no time to fill you in.  He was a Glaswegian and died too young—in 2011 at 67, from cancer. And his music was sui generis.  His voice was nasal but somehow melded perfectly with his guitar, and his style of playing was haunting. Sometimes he’d put his fingers underneath the strings.

In 1965, when I was in high school, I somehow discovered his first album, bearing just his name. The Times piece noted that Jansch was paid just 100 pounds for the work, but the album sold 150,000 copies (one to me).

Despite his influence on other musicians (including Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, and Donovan), Jansch never seemed to hit the big time. He remains, I think, a cult musician. As Connelly said in the piece, “Everyone else seemed heartbroken that he didn’t get what they saw as his due, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all.”

If you’re a fan of Jansch, you’ll enjoy hearing these songs again, all from his first album. (His later efforts with the group Pentangle don’t move me as much.)

The first is his most famous: a solo guitar piece called “Angie”. It was written by Davy Graham but Jansch’s cover remains the best. If you’re a Paul Simon fan, you’ll remember it reworked as the song “Anji” on the Simon and Garfunkel album “Sounds of Silence”:

“Running from Home”:

“I Have No Time”

Finally, another of my favorites: “Needle of Death,” about a heroin addict. Bit of this appear in Neil Young’s song, “Ambulance Blues,” and the two performed it together in 2006.

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“As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar … and my favorite.”  —Neil Young

19 Comments

  1. Dawn Oz
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I know these pieces so well, thanks.

  2. Pete Moulton
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    You can count me among Bert Jansch’s American fans. He was one of the great ones, and this album was also my favorite. Thanks for the memories!

  3. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Thanks,

    I had never heard of him and very much like him.

  4. Mobius
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Same here, Chuck. I had not heard of him before. His style reminds me very much of Gordon Lightfoot, a musician I am very fond of.

  5. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Donovan even wrote two songs !*about*! Bert Jansch, one of the “Bert’s Blues” from the “Sunshine Superman” album and “House of Jansch” from the “Mellow Yellow” album.

    Didn’t know about the Paul Simon- Angie connection, though I remember Simon and Garfunkel’s version well.

  6. Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Nick Drake developed a lot of his haunting riffs from listening to early Jansch.

  7. Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I came to Bert Jansch through the back door with the Pentangle group. I later purchased solo albums by Bert. I hadn’t listened to his music in a long time as all I have is on vinyl at this point. Still listenable. I will have to dig them out. Thanks.

  8. Mark Phillippi
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I too bought Bert’s first album and had it until about five years ago when I lost it during a move. One piece especially intrigued me as a young guitarist. I don’t recall the name but the liner notes commented that his brilliant use of ostinato made it seem that more than one instrument was playing. As I matured in my playing I reached the obvious conclusion that the song was overdubbed and there were indeed two instruments playing.

    That being said, his guitar work was exceptional and I took immediately to his voice.

    Paul Simon’s Anji was one of the songs I played at my debut open mike night at the Fifth Peg in your fair city in 1972. I think they let me on stage around 3 AM.

    A while later I managed to interweave a bit of Bert’s interpretation into my performance.

    I later bought the Davy Graham album that contained the song.

    By sheer coincidence, I played that tune last night in my apartment.

    Thanks for introducing Bert’s music to those who hadn’t had the pleasure before.

  9. Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for reminding me how much I enjoy Bert’s work. I too was introduced to his work while in school, and followed his career into his Pentangle days. Which I enjoyed as much as his earlier stuff.
    My musical tastes moved on but now are circling back – a function of my time-of-life I think.

  10. JBlilie
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    He was a great player. Some of his playing can bee seen on these videos:

  11. Mary Canada
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I like it. Thanks for the introduction.

  12. Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    If anybody is curious about this “Pentangle” of which Jerry writes, youtube.com/watch?v=-4jXfMEu1YY

  13. Pierre Masson
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    His contributions with John Renbourn were very interesting too. Their two personalities fitted very well together.

  14. Uommibatto
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Lovely – thanks for the introduction!

    I liked the comment to “Angie” which noted the similarity to Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows” – good catch!

  15. Steve
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I taught myself “Tinker’s Blues” off that album. The record player had a 16 rpm speed so everything would be slowed down and an octave lower. I lost a dear niece to the needle of death. The song makes me weep.

  16. R J Langley
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Love the guy. I recently saw a film Called Acoustic Routes about him, which I recommend highly. Billy Connolly features in it quite heavily and is delightful.

    A few years ago John Renbourne played a gig at Leeds University School of Music, while I was studying there. I think I was 21. My lecturer asked me to meet him and help him move his gear into the concert hall. I took his guitar out of his car and slammed down the boot (trunk, if you’re American) with his keys inside. With hindsight, I think he was making fun of me because I was rather starstruck, but the next thing he said was something like ‘whoops! I’m getting stupid in my old age. Must be all that acid we did in the 60s!’

    I missed two chances to see Bert play live, not long before he died. One of the few real regrets of my life.

    • R J Langley
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      Clarification,: it was John Renbourn who slammed the car boot shut, not me!

  17. Marcoli
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I do not know if this has ever been posted here, but you can NOT see this with dry eyes. Also there are several cats.
    PicturesThatWillRestoreYourFaithinHumanity

  18. Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    How Bert Jansch inspired Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart: http://tyneandwear.sky.com/news/article/84908/how-1960s-folk-legends-bert-jansch-and-john-fahey-inspired-eurythmics


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