Yet Jansch's considerable achievement remains somewhat obscure today, although his 2006 full-length release The Black Swan featured such young, fervent admirers as Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton. Like, say, a slightly ahead-of-his-time pop mastermind such as Arthur Lee, Jansch is an innovator who is due for a major reassessment. Jansch hit early with his 1965 album Bert Jansch, which remains an essential recording and a very influential piece of vinyl. You'll hear echoes of his deep-toned approach in recordings by Donovan and Led Zeppelin — in fact, Jansch is perhaps most well known for his version of the traditional "Blackwaterside," which Zeppelin's Jimmy Page reworked for the band's first album.
A musician's musician, Jansch had worked his way up from his native Glasgow to record and play in London, and such '60s records as Jack Orion and It Don't Bother Me stand as some of his best music. With guitarist John Renbourn, he formed the group Pentangle, and later cut two albums in Los Angeles with steel guitarist Red Rhodes and other American musicians. I don't think Jansch's California period is his best, although I do like "Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning," a track from 1974's LA Turnaround. Jansch needed the kind of angst California country-rock couldn't provide.
Still, Jansch was rarely less than charming in his unaffected way, and he made some great records. Bert Jansch is a striking debut — the instrumentals sizzle with virile lyricism, and Jansch's "Needle of Death" is an honorable entry in the canon of '60s anti-drug songs. But I prefer the follow-up, 1965's It Don't Bother Me, which seems the perfect marriage of self-effacing humor and fatalism — the title track may be my single favorite Jansch performance.
In later years, he continued to record — both The Black Swan and 2002's Edge of a Dream are first-rate efforts. He toured with the reformed Pentangle, and opened for Neil Young on Young's 2010 American tour. I interviewed Jansch when he came to Nashville on that tour — amazingly, it was his first and only time to visit Nashville. Having come through a bout with lung cancer, he was gracious, and paid his respects to American blues and country, along with the influence of Graham. I feel very fortunate to have spoken to — and heard in the hallowed confines of the Ryman Auditorium — someone who contributed so stealthily to the sound and feel of our musical era. Like all great musicians, he didn't seem totally satisfied with his work to date. When I asked him which of his records he thought summed him up, Jansch said, "Very rarely do I like a whole album. I think maybe [1971's] Rosemary Lane or something like that, where I could actually listen to more than one track and enjoy it. You always think, 'Ah, I could do it better.' "