Guitarist, singer and songwriter Bert Jansch, who succumbed to cancer the morning of October 5 at age 67, remains a towering figure not only in the realms of British folk and folk-rock, but amidst the wider world of sounds he profoundly influenced. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Jansch initially made a name for himself on the London folk scene of the mid ‘60s alongside Sandy Denny, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper and a temporarily expatriated Paul Simon. His virtuosic acoustic finger-picking technique, viola-like Scottish baritone and folk-rooted but open-ended songwriting style helped set him apart from the pack. After a couple of influential albums on his own, he established an equally seminal duo with fellow guitarist John Renbourn, and the pair began working on a blend of folk, blues, rock and jazz that would become the band Pentangle in 1967.
Like their peers Fairport Convention, Pentangle was at the leading edge of England’s first folk-rock wave, doing for their culture’s traditional music what the Byrds and the Grateful Dead did for American roots music. The band split after a six-album run, and Jansch concentrated exclusively on the solo career he’d maintained throughout Pentangle’s lifetime. By this point a whole generation of rockers influenced by Jansch’s work had ascended to star status, including Neil Young and Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page even “borrowed” the Scottish guitar hero’s arrangement of the folk song “Black Water Side” for his own “Black Mountain Side.”
Jansch’s long battle with alcoholism started getting the best of him by the ‘80s, until he was essentially forced to choose between drinking and living. Rebounding into a revitalized career at the end of that decade, he gained a whole new crop of famous acolytes, from Johnny Marr to Devendra Banhart, in the ensuing years. His last album, 2006’s The Black Swan, was released in the U.S. by indie-rock label Drag City and included contributions from Banhart and Beth Orton. Jansch continued touring throughout his battle with cancer, playing a string of dates with Young as well as some reunion shows with Pentangle in 2011.
Jansch’s massive discography can be daunting to navigate unguided, so here are a few of the high-water marks in folk legend Jansch’s long, distinguished career.
Bert Jansch (1965)
The shot heard ‘round the world, or at least around U.K. folk clubs, Jansch’s debut album introduced a skilled young seeker, steeped in folk tradition but bewitched by blues and jazz. “Needle of Death” would become one of Jansch’s most influential compositions.
Bert Jansch & John Renbourn – Bert and John (1966)
When Jansch joined forces with kindred spirit John Renbourn, they created a two-brained, four-handed, 10-fingered monster that cast a long shadow over British folk for decades to come, and paved the way for Pentangle.
Birthday Blues (1969)
Though he’d been composing from the beginning, Jansch the songwriter really emerges here. The haunting “A Woman Like You” had enough staying power that Jansch revisited it 27 years later on The Black Swan.
Pentangle: Reflection (1971)
Jansch and Renbourn built folk-rock dream team Pentangle with singer Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, finally giving free reign to all the eclectic influences they’d been tinkering with on past recordings. They achieved a striking new sound in the process.
The Black Swan (2006)
Solidly ensconced in elder-statesman-of-folk status, Jansch introduced himself to yet another generation of fans with his final album, aided by such disciples as Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart, and Vetiver guitarist Kevin Barker.