On a recent visit to Shropshire, I was once again accused of being influenced by Bert Jansch’s guitar playing. Though I do believe that a musician is more than the sum of his or her influences (or should be, at my age…), it was hard for anyone who started to play – or attempt – serious acoustic guitar in the late 60s not to absorb some influences from musicians like Davy Graham, Jansch, John Renbourn, and folkier types like Martin Carthy and Nic Jones. And while the days when I’d spend hours and days trying to disassemble other people’s music are long gone, I can’t deny the debt I owe to these and many others, not least the realization that there are more interesting things to do with a guitar accompaniment than play straight chords in standard tuning.
Strangely enough, I’ve never owned a Bert Jansch album. But in 2014, on a flight back from Sidney, I discovered via BA’s in-flight audio channel not only that I don’t much care for Mumford and Sons, but also that Bert’s first album was much better than I remembered. Of course, the guitar was always exceptional, but the vocals seemed much better than I remembered. So I made a mental note to acquire a copy, but never got around to it.
A week or so ago, however, while rifling through what I like to call the ‘recordings that only old folkies care about’ section in Shrewsbury’s HMV, I came across that same album and reached for my wallet. This, by the way, isn’t exactly the same recording I heard on the plane, which included some rough instrumental versions, which I rated primarily as of historical/completist interest. This, as far as I remember, includes the same tracks and running order as the original 1965 vinyl, though not the original sleeve notes. It does, however, include a more recent appreciation of Bert’s music and influence by Will Hodgkinson and an interview by Mick Houghton with Bill Leader, who produced the album (Transatlantic Records, TRACD 125).
There may not be too many readers for a review of an album that’s over 50 years old – and which an awful lot of guitarists of my generation will remember better than I did – but I’m going to go through the individual tracks anyway.
- ‘Strolling Down The Highway’ is the sort of Jansch song I like best: not a blues, but with a blues-y feel to the guitar and lyric that perhaps Robert Johnson would have empathized with. It’s interesting to compare it to the much more recent version by Wizz Jones and John Renbourn, where Wizz’s Bert-like guitar is augmented by John’s lead part. I like both versions, but Bert’s vocal, though a little unsteady, suits it better than Wizz’s.
- ‘Smokey River’ is an instrumental based on Jimmy Guiffre’s ‘Train And The River’: while less complex than Guiffre’s own trio and quartet versions, unsurprisingly, it retains the ‘blues folk jazz’ feel of my favourite Guiffre version, the 1958 ‘Sounds of Jazz’ recording with Jim Hall on guitar and Jim Atlas on bass. It opens and closes with a delicate passage closely echoing one of Hall’s bridge sections, but the main body follows the approximate shape of the opening section of the trio version, albeit in a darker, minor-key interpretation.
- In ‘Oh How Your Love Is Strong’, an attractive picking style manages to make something almost romantic out of the less attractive theme of a man apparently declining to take responsibility for his girl-friend’s pregnancy.
- ‘I Have No Time’ could be described as a protest song, I guess, though it mostly avoids the preachiness of ’60s commercial protest, substituting a poetic use of imagery that may or may not be to your taste – “If cherry trees bore fruit of gold/the birds would die, their wings would fold”.
- ‘Finches’ is a short guitar piece: an object lesson in displaying technique without flashiness, and making a musical statement at exactly the length it needed to be.
- ‘Rambling’s Gonna Be The Death Of Me’ is another blues-inflected song, reflecting a time when rambling was clearly on his mind.
- ‘Veronica’ is another guitar solo, a gentle, reflective piece built around a simple repeating bass line.
- ‘Needle Of Death’ is perhaps the best-known of Bert’s songs, deservedly: a simple statement of regret at the untimely death of a friend by overdose.
- ‘Do You Hear Me Now?’ acquired a certain commercial exposure when Donovan included a version on his ‘Universal Soldier’ EP, but is much more effective than the average sub-Dylan moralizing characteristic of the 60s pop-protest movement. Its expression of nuclear-fueled paranoia suddenly seems all too appropriate once again, and the harsh, dramatic delivery brings out the best in Bert’s delivery.
- ‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is a jazzy, chordal guitar piece that very much recalls a certain era in eclectic guitar styling – there’s something essentially English about it yet it calls to mind Davy Graham’s more overt jazz piano influences. It’s not surprising that Bert worked so well with John Renbourn around this time, as you can just as easily imagine a piece like this falling from Renbourn’s fingers.
- ‘Running From Home’ is an object lesson in how much an accomplished guitarist can achieve with two chords and a suitably repetitive melody. But it’s the words that really strike home here: listening to it, I can’t help remembering my own move to London in the 70s, a time of confusion and alienation.
- ‘Courting Blues’ is probably not one of his best lyrics or vocal performances, but the story is well-carried by a deceptively simple succession of arpeggiated chords.
- ‘Casbah’ is yet another guitar piece: although the title suggests a more North African feel than is actually demonstrated, both the title and the techniques used have definite echoes of Davy Graham, acknowledged by Bert as an influence.
- ‘Dreams of Love’ is a sad little song about lost love, with a pretty tune and a clawhammer accompaniment that calls to mind Tom Paxton or even Jackson C. Frank. The words are very much Bert in poetic mode, but in this instance the imagery seems quite appropriate.
- The album finishes with what must be the version everyone knows of Davy Graham’s ‘Angie’ (a.k.a. ‘Anji’), though Davy himself apparently didn’t think much of it. At any rate, it seemed in the ’70s that everyone who played found it necessary to include a quick chorus of Nat Adderley’s ‘Work Song’, as Bert did. Not the original – Davy’s recording was made around 1962 – but better than any of the subsequent versions by various pop-y people, IMHO. And, indeed, better recorded than the version on Davy’s 1962 recording, despite Bill Leader’s suggestion that the quality of the recording was, for economic reasons, compromised by the use of ‘inferior tape and hired recording gear.’
There are contrasting aspects to this album. The guitar pieces demonstrate a gifted musician already displaying outstanding technique: the song accompaniments are accomplished, but are particularly notable for the fact that the artist never lets virtuosity get in the way of the song. The vocals are at times a little unsteady, but work better for me than the more mannered approach that seems to have characterized some of his work (solo and with Pentangle) a little later on. The songs are never less than interesting melodically and harmonically, and if the lyrics occasionally border on the banal (“Love, be bold/We’re not so old”) the best of them have a directness and emotional impact that he may have equalled later in his career, but probably never surpassed.
I’m glad to have finally added this album to my collection. It was, after all, undoubtedly a milestone in the evolution of the singer-songwriter culture and the eclectic ‘folk baroque’ school of acoustic guitar that continues to chime with much younger musicians who may never have heard the term.