When Bert Jansch passed away at age 67 this October, the world truly lost one of its great musicians. Here the artist Alasdair Roberts discusses what Jansch’s music has meant to him:
I think it was actually Stephen McRobbie of the Glasgow band The Pastels who introduced me to the music of Bert Jansch, in the early 1990s. As a teenager I would make pilgrimages from my home in Callander, Perthshire to the record department of John Smith’s Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow, where Stephen worked and did a good job of making musical suggestions to avid youths such as me. ‘Like Bob Dylan, but better’, was how he summed up Bert Jansch to me, pressing an LP into my hand (I don’t remember which LP it was). I first saw and heard Bert play live in Perth, Scotland about ten years after that first introduction – I went along to the gig, a quiet affair in the local theatre, with my elder sister – and was fortunate to see him a good few times between then and his recent passing. I was heartened by the fact that every time I saw Bert live, the audiences grew bigger and bigger as new generations of music lovers discovered his music.
I don’t know whether Stephen McRobbie remembers making that bold statement all those years ago, or whether he would still stand by it. Of course, the two men Dylan and Jansch can’t really be compared in that way as they’re so different–they were not at all up to the same things artistically. Jansch is certainly the more mellifluous and sonorous vocalist. His guitar playing, which is what draws one back to his music again and again, is phenomenal and, right from the beginning, was far ahead of his time. It’s certainly technically far superior to Dylan’s (but of course, I don’t believe that that’s what one listens to Dylan’s music for). Back then, in an era where guitar playing, particularly in British “folk music” if that’s what you want to call it, generally consisted of the rudimentary strumming of three chords as accompaniment to traditional songs, Jansch raised guitarsmanship (or -womanship) in British folk music to an artform in itself. It’s not to say that he was totally peerless–there were a few other innovators then and it’s hard to mention Bert Jansch in those days without also mentioning somebody like Davey Graham, with whom he has affinities and I believe must have shared some healthy competition. Of the two, it’s probably Jansch’s solo guitar music I would listen to more frequently and I would definitely cite him as an influence on my own playing.
Other solo male British guitarists who emerged from that fertile time, and of whose music I am also a great fan–Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, Martin Carthy–were and are great artists in their own various ways. They’re all guitar players, singers and thinkers who achieved a synergy between those three elements of their music to create something far greater than the sum of its parts, as did Jansch. However, his music is quite different from theirs: it seems to me to give a lot more of a nod stylistically to American folk and blues traditions where the others are perhaps more concerned with forging a distinctly “British” sound. It is discernible in Bert’s string bends, the looseness and relative wildness of a lot of his playing; but then there’s a Celtic feel there too in the more modal material and his interpretations of Irish and Scottish traditional songs. There’s an eclecticism to much of his music which makes it truly international. One record of his to which I return, and which is a favourite of my good friend Chris Mack (who records solo guitar music under the name James Orr Complex and on whom a Jansch influence is undeniable) is “Avocet,” a beautifully realised, entirely instrumental, ornithological concept album of sorts with some jawdropping playing and a gallery of fantastic guest musicians. I’d recommend that record to anybody. In fact, I might give it a spin now and take a wee dram (Speyside, I think) to the great man. May he rest easy.