Claire and I moved down to sunny Devon, and Exeter, from the cold north nearly 10 years ago. We moved from a small town in the foot of the Derbyshire hills called Glossop, which had, at the time, a thriving music scene, playing hosts to many live acts with a diverse range of styles. Glossop was also only a stones throw away from Manchester, the place of my birth, and with a huge range of live music to choose from. Glossop had its fair share of folk artists pass through its venues. Maybe it’s the Venn of folk music with warm brown beer, woolly sweaters, beards, hiking, and the traveller that makes the space for this genre in such a place as Glossop? Sandwiched right between Sheffield to the East, and Manchester to the West, there may be an element of truth in that. In the absence of big names coming to town (other than Kate Rusby once before she got famous), Glossop held its own with the underground scene of ‘one man and his guitar’ type events. Now to Exeter…
I’m not sure what it is about the South West, but the Venn here is between holiday resorts and tribute acts. The further you head down the ‘nose’ of the SW, the less original the act…but that does beg the question about what constitutes originality anyway?
Exeter has a veritable venue in the Pheonix Art Centre, where I have seen amongst others, British Sea Power, Johnny Marr (more later…), Lambchop, and Half Man Half Biscuit. But, to see big names on a regular basis is again quite rare. Leading up to us moving down here I had started to furrow the back catalogue of folk, getting into the likes of John Martyn. With a severe lack of big name artists to see down here Claire and I decided to find a local folk club – we came across Topsham Folk Club. Established for 40 years, this folk club has been home over the years to many a ‘big name’. Topsham, is again a place for the traveller as it is a former port and trading post. We happened upon tickets for Martin Carthy, who for most aficionados would be considered folk royalty. He was great! A few weeks after that gig we saw an advert for Nick Harper, son of Roy Harper but an acclaimed folkie in his own right. Along to the gig we went – at the Pheonix in Exeter. His stage was set out as the living room in his childhood home, and as the gig started he began to explain how his life, from an early age, had been enriched by the presence of various folk legends brought to his home by his father. His early influences and acquaintances included Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Davey Graham, and most importantly the late, great, Bert Jansch. These were the people that influenced him, and some of whom taught him his guitar style.
Jansch is revered in folk circles, and a major influence on many artists (more later). Born in Scotland, he adopted a style that drew not just on the traditional folk of his homeland, but blended jazz and blues rhythms from the deep American south. Jansch is considered to be one of the most incredible and accomplished guitarists of his generation. Nick Harper said at one point during the gig that he was going to attempt to play a notoriously difficult Jansch number, the last track on his eponymous debut ‘Bert Jansch’, a track called ‘Angie’. Having tried a few times to get it right he finally played it through note perfect. My mouth was wide open. Angie’s reeling intricate fingerpicking is beyond belief. To hear this being played live was an incredible treat. Jansch had died a few years before I had bothered to even get into him. ‘Bert Jansch’, the album, has been a very recent addition to my collection, and the only record I own by him. So, simply for the experience of hearing it live, I thought it was about time to give this record an airing at Record club. It turned out that we were all quite unaware of Jansch’s wider work. Nor were we aware of the synchronicity of my choice with the other independent choice for the night from Tom (more later…).
Bert Jansch’s debut solo album is pure stripped back folk. Just him and his guitar, slurred lyrics, and no doubt a few refreshers to help him get through (Jansch famously boozed his way through the 60s, 70s, 80s, only to give up in the late 90s). Jansch later founded the group Pentangle, where he would be joined by a female vocalist and other musicians. His earlier recordings are however regarded as his best. Many of the tracks on this, his debut album, are instrumentals. Indeed ‘Angie’ is an instrumental. While other tracks sound quite Dylan-esque in vocal, the guitar playing is much richer than Dylan. You hear him beat the side of the instrument in a blues style that is reminiscent of Big Bill Broonzy and other early blues artists. One of the standout tracks, ‘Needle of Death’, is an anti-drugs song about the death of one of his close friends to a heroin overdose. This, released in 1965, would have contrasted wildly from other more ‘lets experiment with substances’ type songs of the era. It’s thought that this song is the inspiration for Neil Young’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ on Harvest. The opening track, ‘Strolling Down the Highway’, was later covered by Nick Drake – who was also influenced by Jansch. You can hear quite clearly the influences that tracks on this album had on later music, not just folk, but also rock, jazz and the slide into Van Morrison’s pastiche on Astral Weeks. For instance, it is well-known that Jimmy Page stole ‘Blackwaterslide’ (from Jansch’s 3rd album) and made ‘Black Mountain Side’ on Led Zeppelin’s debut – I never got along with Zep, despite trying really hard to like them in my youth. They always seemed quite derivative to me. Jimmy Page also nicked many of the picking styles of Jansch, and rocked them up, much to the chagrin of Bert in later life. Still, Jansch eschewed the high-life, and lived most of his time with a no-fixed-abode approach to the world. For him it wasn’t about the money…
Jansch’s debut is rootsy, yet complex. The rhythms and twists and turns each song takes draws you in. ‘Casbah’ contains eastern influences. Jansch famously travelled to Marrakesh and escaped back to London after a bout of dysentery. There he learned different playing styles which had a huge influence on him. He was tutored in guitar by Davey Graham (who originally recorded ‘Angie’, or Anji, I think – or a version of it). Graham was arguably the first person to bring Eastern influences into folk music, long before the Beatles ‘did it’ with rock & roll and claimed it as their own (hear him on this early clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2-j89MnNCw which shows the link between oriental music and Irish folk – it all comes from roots…). This is the trouble with folk, it is accessible and nobody claims a right to own the music. It is passed on and down to the next generation, reinterpreted. This was why ‘Angie’, when played by Harper that night in Exeter, was so poignant to me. It dawned on me in that moment that this song, so fiendishly difficult to play, may never be heard live again unless people take the time to learn it and reinterpret it. Here I was, privileged to hear it, being passed on to another generation. Who will play these songs when they are gone forever? Nick Harper reckoned there were very few people who could actually play it, and nobody like Bert Jansch. So fragile is the legacy of folk, and yet its influence can be traced forwards to other music. Hearing it is like going on a journey. I often think that folk comes out from the ground, and the earth. It has a basic quality that you can trace through other styles and genres.
As pointed out on the night by Nick (not Harper, but DRC’s @sickmouthy), influence is a difficult thing when it comes to music. Nick said you don’t have to sound like the original to claim influence. Johnny Marr is a big fan of Jansch, yet you might struggle to hear him in the Smiths, apart from maybe those minor chords. Throughout ‘Bert Jansch’ the minor chords bring a solemnity to the feel of the songs. Jansch was apparently more into the ‘feel of songs’ than the music. Now, I love a minor chord. It’s that feeling of regret that they fill you with, or maybe they pluck the chords of my own regrets in life? I am told that minor chords in Western music are an influence from the East (I heard this on a Radio 4 documentary once). Perhaps it’s those Eastern influences, again feeding into Jansch’s music, that we are hearing here.
So, to the other choice of the night (@tomrainbow brought along ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ by Pavement). I won’t steal Tom’s thunder too much but listening to the slightly off-kilter and bending the guitar to fit the lyrics style of Stephen Malkmus made me wonder if there was the faintest glimmer of a connectivity between the two artists? Low and behold, after a few Google searches following DRC I found that Bert Jansch is Malkmus’ favourite guitarist of all time, and he’s been massively influenced by him! I also found that Jansch plays guitar on a Babyshambles track (‘Lost Art of Murder’) on their album Shotters Nation, which for me is probably the best thing that Pete Doherty has ever done (his performance of it, without Jansch, on Jonathan Ross’ show is perhaps one of my most favourite live moments https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct6jWKqJ3y0). I certainly think all that off-kilter stuff that Doherty attempts with The Libertines is right down the barrel of Pavement…and so the wheel turns. What is original anyway? Pavement have been accused of their own level of plagiarism – a tribute act to the Fall? Does all music pay homage ultimately to a roots music, displayed here perfectly by a stripped back folksy-bluesy-jazz infused Jansch? Is Jansch just a gateway from rootsy folk, blues and jazz to modern rock and popular music of today? Perhaps a step too far, but he was certainly at that juxtaposition in time between roots and more developed styles of the late 60s, early 70s. In that respect ‘Bert Jansch’ is a pivotal album, sitting in the middle of two worlds, the old and the new.
So, to Bert Jansch, where to go with him? I’ve got a long back catalogue to now furrow, and with so many lines of influence who knows where it will take me. ‘Bert Jansch’ is a great record, and is certainly a classic. Right after record club I went and bought a copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Jansch’s second album ‘It Don’t Bother Me’. I’ll be listening harder now to find those connections. Listening harder to find the original sounds and follow them through to the present day. I’ll also have to get along to see Harper again if I want to hear that Angie again.
Tom listened: Folk is such a tricky genre for me and anything that evokes the ol’ finger in the ear warbling that, for me, is synonymous of traditional English folk music gets me running…in the opposite direction to where the sound is coming from! Yet I love Nick Drake’s folky take on arcadian England, there’s something deeply honest and vulnerable about his music that really draws me in, so close that its as if his hushed tones are whispering to me and me only.
When I think of other examples of folk inflected music from these shores that have found their way into my collection, it tends to be by artists of Celtic origin; Gorky’s and Cate Le Bon from Wales, Alasdair Roberts, John Martyn, James Yorkston from Scotland. I tend to like the quirkiness of the former and the pithiness of the latter and have avoided the Pentangle axis with relative ease and not much sense of missing out over the years.
I had been aware of Bert Jansch for much of my adult life, yet had never knowingly listened to him until last week. I guess I assumed that as he was around in the 60s his music would be neither pithy or quirky enough to fulfil my alt-folk needs; after all how likely was it that it would sound like There is No One What Will Take Care of You or A River is Too Much to Love? Well…funnily enough it wasn’t a million miles away from either and I was immediately surprised at how fresh, contemporary and nontraditional (to my untrained ears and ignorant mind) this felt. A dark record (I like it this way) I was reminded of Robbie Basho at times, Nick Drake at others but most of all this just felt like an inspired record from a singular artist who was simply getting the stuff from deep inside him out there.
And at no point did it sound like Pavement!