Bert Jansch – a belated review

A review of sorts: Bert Jansch’s first album revisited, more than fifty years on.

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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.

  1. ‘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.
  2. ‘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.
  3. 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.
  4. ‘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”.
  5. ‘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.
  6. ‘Rambling’s Gonna Be The Death Of Me’ is another blues-inflected song, reflecting a time when rambling was clearly on his mind.
  7. ‘Veronica’ is another guitar solo, a gentle, reflective piece built around a simple repeating bass line.
  8. ‘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.
  9. ‘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.
  10. ‘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.
  11. ‘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.
  12. ‘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.
  13. ‘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.
  14. ‘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.
  15. 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.

David Harley

Singing in the Street [demo]

I have a large basket full of forgotten or half-written songs, or even orphaned lines and verses. Every so often I take a look through it, and a few days ago, I found this, from the early 70s. Clearly not the happiest time of my life, but I think the song may creep back into my repertoire anyway:

I thought I heard you singing in the street
You couldn’t hold the tune, but the words were sweet
I don’t know who you were singing for
I don’t even wish it was me

And I remember once I caught you crying
I was half-asleep, your body next to mine
You wouldn’t say what you were crying for
I suppose it might have been me

And once I heard you singing in the street
You couldn’t hold the tune, but the words were sweet
I heard that song too long ago
There’s nothing more to say

“Of course I love you
I told you so”
“Yes, I remember
But it seems so long ago”

And a version with a second guitar, just as a tryout. I think the final version will be quite different (and will need some work on the vocals: I wasn’t getting those low notes very well today). Still, nice to have a version actually down. Or up. Or somewhere…

David Harley

Words and music (c) David Harley 1973

Tears of Morning (suite) [very rough demo]

An idea for something that would be a suite rather than an individual song. At the moment it combines a version of Tears of Morning (a setting of two lyrics from Housman’s Last Poems); the air-like guitar piece that would be the basis of a guitar arrangement for that setting and a bridge to the next section; this next section would be my song Sea Fret (here represented by just two verses using a different guitar arrangement to fit in with the first sections, and incorporating some bits from an old guitar piece of mine called Bluebert); and finally, an instrumental interpretation of She Moved Through The Fair based on Davy Graham’s arrangement from the 1960s.

There’s a lot of work to do on this (and the vocals illustrate clearly why you shouldn’t sing just after eating pizza): here, I’m just working out some ideas for an overall structure.

David Harley

Tears of Morning [demo]

Another Housman setting: words from Last Poems. I’ve followed the example of Michael Raven in using two separate verses that are clearly connected thematically and in form, at least as far as this stand-alone song is concerned. However, in the suite of songs/pieces that this might eventually be used for, XXVI will probably be enough. The suite is going to be gloomy enough as it is…

Mike Raven used a traditional tune for his setting that sounds familiar, but I’m not sure from where. I think I may have heard it attached to The Holy Well but wouldn’t swear to it. That setting is beautifully sung unaccompanied by Joan Mills on the CD ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (with Mike Raven) reviewed here. However, I’ve put a new tune to it. This is one of my ‘get-the-tune-recorded-and-worry-about-the-setting-later’ pieces, strictly a demo.

XXVI

The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.

XXVII

The sigh that heaves the grasses
Whence thou wilt never rise
Is of the air that passes
And knows not if it sighs.

The diamond tears adorning
Thy low mound on the lea,
Those are the tears of morning,
That weeps, but not for thee.

David Harley

UK Folk Music site resurgent

Alan Morley wrote to the Folk Clubs UK Facebook page as follows. I thought there might be readers of this blog who might find it of interest, especially if they run events or clubs.

Back in 2011, I started the UK Folk Music website [not connected to the Facebook page, by the way] which ran until the start of 2016 .

I have just launched a cut down version of the original website and will include a searchable index of UK Folk Clubs.

If there are any clubs in this excellent FB Group who would like to be included in the index either drop me a message on FB or email me info@uk-folk.co.uk

I have loads to add to the website but here’s a link to how it looks at the moment. We are already being picked up by search engines – the original site was top of Google..

I don’t have any connection with the new web site or with the Facebook page (apart from reading them occasionally), so please contact them directly for further information.

David Harley

Long Cigarettes, Cheap Red Wine [demo]

Written in the 1970s when I was getting disenchanted with the idea of being a rock star. Not that there was ever the slightest chance of that happening. (There is a version around somewhere played on resonator guitar.) Actually, the new intro might be interesting played on bouzouki and/or banjo. I’ll have to think about that.

Lyrics (slightly amended since the resonator version):

You sing your songs / the stage is bare
There isn’t / anyone out there
From time to time / it just seems that way
And I run out / of songs to play

Forget the musak / and the beer
The open mouths / the grudging cheers
There isn’t / any better way
To freeload / your life away

Back in / 1969
I lost someone / I thought  was mine
That’s the price / I had to pay
When I ran out / of songs to play

Goodbye old friend / I have to leave
Just to prove / that I’m still free
I’ll see you / in a year or so
And buy the round / you say I owe

The long cigarettes / the cheap red wine
The melodies / you say are mine
And if you find / somewhere to be
I hope / you’ll save a place for me

Words and music by David Harley: all rights reserved