Bert Jansch was one of the greatest musicians ever to emerge from the Scottish folk scene. A superbly innovative and inspiring guitarist whose influence extends globally and reaches into the major rock music arena, he was also a champion of traditional songs and ballads whose individual adaptations gave centuries old texts renewed vigour and continuing resonance.
He was born in Glasgow on November 3, 1943. Three months later the family moved to West Pilton in Edinburgh and it was here that Bert’s fascination with the guitar began when his teacher brought one into school one day to show the class. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make his own guitar, Bert was finally able to afford one when he left school at sixteen to become an apprentice nurseryman.
By this time he had passed through the skiffle phase as a Lonnie Donegan fan and had discovered the blues through an EP of Big Bill Broonzy, and when he happened upon a club in Edinburgh’s High Street, The Howff, where guitar lessons were available, he had to investigate. One of the first musicians he encountered at the Howff was blues guitarist Brownie McGhee, who was astonished to hear that the teenager, who had just played a tricky phrase back to him after being shown it twice, had only been playing guitar for six weeks.
When Bert then heard the guitar prophet Davey Graham, he learned Graham’s famous composition Angi, making it a staple of his repertoire, and followed Graham’s example by busking through Europe, eventually moving permanently to London in 1964. He recorded his first album, Bert Jansch, in 1965, fell in with singer Anne Briggs, who shared her knowledge of traditional songs with him, and formed a duo with fellow guitarist John Renbourn that grew into a quintet, The Pentangle.
Originally conceived as a loose, jamming band, The Pentangle’s trailblazing marriage of folk, blues and jazz quickly became very popular, with their third album, Basket of Light, reaching the top ten. With a punishing touring and recording schedule, the group became physically exhausted and the five members went their separate ways in early 1973.
Thereafter, Bert would rekindle the Pentangle name, with singer Jacqui McShee the only other original member, from time to time while continuing a solo career that found him being produced by former Monkee, Mike Nesmith, playing songs by Ewan MacColl, Dave Goulder and Cyril Tawney, adapting traditional songs and adding to his own highly regarded catalogue of songs that includes the timeless Needle of Death and Running From Home.
In the 1990s, with high profile fans including Neil Young, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler singing his praises, Bert’s profile took an upswing. His appearance on popular TV programme Later … With Jools Holland, which saw him playing one of his definitive traditional adaptations, Blackwaterside with Irish folk band Altan, led to a new recording deal and a triumphant final decade, during which Bert toured America with Neil Young, received rave reviews with the re-formed Pentangle, returned spectacularly to solo form with his 2006 album, The Black Swan, and even had a song, Black Cat Blues, feature in a hit movie, Calendar Girls. It was recognition that was thoroughly deserved for a musician who will forever be remembered for his dexterity, his musicality and his pioneering spirit.