The tension between traditional expression and modernist extrapolation has helped define popular music, and no performer has embodied that tension more fruitfully than Bert Jansch. A terrifying acoustic guitarist who sings in an offhand but intense manner all his own, Jansch has created some of the most intricate art of the last half-century. Beginning with his eponymous 1965 debut, Jansch has revolutionized what one may call folk music and inspired legions of musicians — some of whom probably don't even know his name.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1943, Jansch gained his first professional experience in folk clubs all around Britain before moving to London in the mid-'60s.
"The folk club I used to go to when I was, like, 15, a long time ago in the '60s, would have players like Pete Seeger come over and play," Jansch says. "One time it was Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. I was about 15-and-a-half, and I was sitting at their feet. It was a tiny little folk club. Eventually I got to play with Brownie in Oakland [Calif.] at his home, about a year before he died."
Typically for a British musician partly inspired by American music, Jansch says he wasn't always aware of the idiomatic distinctions Americans can take for granted.
"Being Scottish, I found it difficult to distinguish between various styles of American playing. I tend to lump them all together, so I couldn't tell who was a country player and who wasn't. From my childhood on, though, it goes from Hank Williams onwards — he was one of my childhood greats."
Recorded in 1964 and 1965, Bert Jansch introduced a miraculously fluent guitarist and first-rate songwriter. Instrumentals such as "Alice's Wonderland" and "Casbah" teem with hints of jazz and blues, complete with the metrical subtleties that would continue to characterize his playing. His vehement, percussive style served a musical conception that could leave conventional notions of tonality gasping for air, and songs such as the anti-drug "Needle of Death" brought forth somewhat inaccurate comparisons to Bob Dylan.
"My style is really just a collection of everything I've ever heard, and not necessarily folk," Jansch says. "It was developed from being in noisy folk clubs and trying to get your playing across without a P.A. So you play louder, snap the strings a lot. I wasn't trying to copy anybody, but a lot of old blues players actually used that as a technique — playing the whole instrument, rather than just the strings."
Bert Jansch sold well, and Donovan covered the record's "Do You Hear Me Now?," which helped introduce Jansch to a broader audience. He continued to refine his style on the follow-up, It Don't Bother Me. His singing gained assurance and his guitar playing became even more concentrated. Much like contemporary efforts by The Incredible String Band, Jansch's early recordings added a futuristic sheen to blues and folk that was analogous to the experimental pop of The Beatles.
Over the course of the next decade, Jansch released a series of brilliant records. Jack Orion and Birthday Blues contained a mix of originals, covers and adapted material, delivered with his unique combination of assertiveness and light irony. Jack Orion sported Jansch's arrangement of the traditional Irish song "Down by Blackwaterside," which he renamed "Blackwaterside." Elements of Jansch's version would later turn up on Led Zeppelin's 1969 debut album (on "Black Mountain Side") — a turn of events that tempted legal action from Jansch's record company.
In the end, that action was never taken, and Jansch prefers to downplay the incident. "I'm a pretty easygoing person," he says. "I don't like to get bitter about things. If I worried about that sort of thing, I would virtually stop playing. Your life would get into another scene which has nothing to do with music."
Jansch's style continued to influence succeeding generations, with musicians as diverse as Nick Drake, Neil Young and Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus all citing Jansch as a guitar hero. Working with acolytes Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart, Jansch released 2006's The Black Swan to critical acclaim. One of his finest and most emotionally affecting records, it contained the amazing "My Pocket's Empty" and some of his toughest blues-based playing.
Amazingly for a guitar hero of his stature, Jansch has never appeared in Nashville. That's a situation he says he's glad to rectify, but he has never been tempted to change his basic approach. "I've done tracks where I've added an electric guitar, since there wasn't an electric player around," he says. "I find I have a problem with electric music — that sense that there isn't a natural acoustic sound in there. I tend not to play very well, because it's so unnatural. Being able to hold sustain and stuff like that on an electric guitar, I've never quite mastered it."
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