Bert Jansch dies at 67; Scottish singer-guitarist influenced rock, folk greats
Bert Jansch, a revered, enigmatic Scottish singer-guitarist whose effect on a host of prominent musicians eclipsed his own fame, has died. He was 67.
Jansch died Wednesday at a hospital in London of lung cancer, a disease he first battled in 2009, his spokesman Mick Houghton told the Associated Press.
Jansch canceled some appearances as the opening act for Neil Young’s U.S. concert tour last fall to undergo treatment but rejoined him for some dates earlier this year.
Young was just one of the high-profile artists who celebrated Jansch’s evocative songs and virtuosic, rough-hewn fingerpicking. Others included Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, Pete Townshend, Donovan and the Smiths’ Johnny Marr. In recent years, Jansch was embraced by a younger generation of musicians, led by Devendra Banhart, Pete Doherty and Beth Orton.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bert Jansch: The obituary of folk guitarist Bert Jansch in the Oct. 7 LATExtra section said that the songs “Bert’s Blues” and “House of Jansch” were on his friend Donovan’s 1966 album “Sunshine Superman.” “Bert’s Blues” is on that album, but “House of Jansch” is on Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” album. —
“He could take the blues and jazz and traditional British folk music and blend those together into a style. I think that was the main influence of his playing,” said singer-guitarist Richard Thompson, who frequented Jansch’s London club appearances in the 1960s. “He was also a great songwriter.”
If Jansch’s own recordings reached a limited audience, his music tended to surface through other artists. Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” was based on Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Blackwater Side.” And the guitar part on Young’s “Ambulance Blues” was a rewrite of Jansch’s “Do You Hear Me Now?”
Young later said it was an inadvertent lift, and was always lavish in acknowledging Jansch’s influence, calling him an acoustic counterpart to Jimi Hendrix.
“That first record of his is epic,” Young said in a 1992 interview. “I was especially taken by ‘Needle of Death,’ such a beautiful and angry song.”
Jansch also was an inveterate outsider, wary of fame and attuned to his own bohemian muse.
“In the early days, I didn’t conform to anything, be it school, work, where I lived. There were no rules,” Jansch said in 2006.
“If you put a rule in front of me, I would break it because it would get in the way of the process of living, and from leaving school up until my first marriage, I was a tramp on the streets. When I made the first album, I had no home and no possessions — not even a guitar. I borrowed one from [folk musician] Martin Carthy for the recording.”
Jansch was born Nov. 3, 1943, in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh. He became hooked on guitar at age 7 and was initially inspired by hit makers such as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan, whose skiffle style incorporated folk and traditional jazz.
In the city’s clubs, he heard such folk musicians as American Pete Seeger and fellow Scot Davy Graham, whose guitar style and experimental spirit influenced him profoundly.
He left home when he was 15 and was teaching guitar and playing in clubs a year later. After hitchhiking around Europe, he settled in London, where he shared an apartment and musical ideas with another celebrated guitarist, John Renbourn.
Jansch began drawing crowds at Soho folk clubs with his amalgam of British folk and American blues, flavored with unusual tunings and an improvisational invention. His unpredictability was enhanced by his heavy drinking.
“Sometimes he’d be actually brilliant. Sometimes he’d be too drunk to play,” Thompson recalled.
With that borrowed guitar, Jansch recorded his first album in his kitchen on a reel-to-reel tape deck. Released by the small Transatlantic label in 1965, “Bert Jansch” quickly put him in the front ranks of the U.K. folk underground.
Donovan, a friend and admirer, included a Jansch song on his debut album, and referenced him in two songs for his 1966 album “Sunshine Superman”: “Bert’s Blues” and “House of Jansch.”
Though Donovan-like celebrity was not Jansch’s goal, fame of a sort did come his way when he and Renbourn joined singer Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox to form Pentangle in 1967. The jazz-flavored folk group’s third album was a Top 5 seller in England, and the quintet even made inroads in the United States. Pentangle disbanded in 1973, due in part to the members’ prodigious alcohol consumption.
True to his free-spirited ways, Jansch moved to Wales and became a farmer after Pentangle’s demise, then returned to London and continued to record and perform, mainly in Europe. He also continued drinking, until he quit cold in 1987 after suffering an alcohol-related pancreatic illness.
Jansch reunited with the other original members of Pentangle to accept a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio2 Folk Awards in 2007. They also began touring and had been working on new material with plans for recording.
Jansch’s 23rd album, “Black Swan,” came out in 2006. With contributions from Orton and Banhart, and production by Banhart’s band member Noah Georgeson, it affirmed the veteran’s stature as a role model for the new generation of folk visionaries.
“In a way I’ve gotten used to it,” Jansch said at the time. “I suppose after years and years, it’s all dawning on me, all this influence stuff. At first it was quite frightening, with all the influential persons in the world. I’m the last person to consider myself being an influence on anybody.”
Jansch is survived by his wife, Loren; and a son, Adam. Another son, Richard, preceded him in death.
Cromelin is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.
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