Obituary: Bert Jansch, gifted Edinburgh guitarist who deservedly earned the soubriquet ‘Britain’s Bob Dylan’

Bert Jansch performing in London in 2007. Picture: Jim Dyson/Getty Images
Bert Jansch performing in London in 2007. Picture: Jim Dyson/Getty Images
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Born: 3 November, 1943, in Glasgow. Died: 5 October, 2011, in London, aged 67

BERT Jansch, the renowned folk musician and co-founder of the group Pentangle, inspired and influenced generations of musicians. He brought to the playing of the acoustic guitar an exceptional rhythm and excitement.

It was the breadth of his musical interests – folk, folk-rock and folk-baroque – that marked Jansch out as untypical – a charismatic individual and an outstanding musician. Jansch came to prominence in London in the 1960s as an acoustic guitarist and a singer-songwriter. He went on to record more than 25 albums and toured extensively. He was a major and spirited force in the revival of British folk music in the 1960s and was often considered, with reason, to be the British Bob Dylan.

The Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan said yesterday: “Bert revolutionised the guitar. I don’t think anybody has ever been revered as much as he is.”

In 1968, he co-founded Pentangle, an eclectic folk rock band to which he brought his own personal passions for the blues and contemporary singers such as Bob Dylan. Pentangle’s first major public concert was at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1967, organised by the Scottish impresario Bruce Dennett. Jansch was to play a fundamental part in the success of the band until it broke up in 1972.

Herbert Jansch was born at Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow but was brought up in Edinburgh attending Pennywell Primary School and Ainslie Park Secondary. At the latter he displayed a remarkable talent for the guitar. Jansch regularly visited the local folk clubs in the city – particularly The Howff in the High Street. The famous club had been founded by the avuncular and ebullient Roy Guest in collaboration with Jim Haynes of the Traverse Theatre. Jansch’s interests in jazz and folk grew rapidly and he developed a deep interest in the work of both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When he left school Jansch knew he wanted a career as a musician but firstly took a job as a nurseryman. In 1960 he decided to devote his life to music and, initially, became (or more correctly, appointed himself) the unofficial caretaker at The Howff.

Jansch often slept in the club and may have received some minimum pay. But the club was a vibrant and exciting place in the 1960s and a favourite meeting place for young musicians in Edinburgh. Janisch (who still did not own a guitar) often performed alongside local singers such as Archie Fisher and Owen Hand. The well-known television folk duo of Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor were often on the bill. Jansch was determined to become a guitarist and took lessons from Fisher during the day.

The Howff had considerable significance on reawakening interest in Scottish folk music. Just by being there and opening its doors to musicians and followers of folk music it provided the boost that was needed to further the musical careers of many – especially Jansch. To comply with the licensing laws The Howff was not allowed to charge admission so they passed a plate round. Jansch was often on plate duty.

Jansch spent the early 1960s touring folk clubs in Britain and was much influenced by Anne Briggs from whom he learned some of the songs (such as Blackwaterside and Reynardine) that he would later record. That was followed by a tour of Europe – busking and hitch-hiking from city to city. In 1965 he was repatriated from Tangiers suffering from dysentery.

Recovered and in London Jansch met the record producer Bill Leader and in his living room they recorded some of Jansch’s music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Leader sold the tape for £100 to Transatlantic Records, which then brought out an album entitled Bert Jansch. It was released in 1965 and immediately sold 150,000 copies. The album is credited with “turning British folk music inside out” and it included Jansch’s emotive protest song Do You Hear Me Now? That in turn was recorded by Donovan and instantly went to No 1 in the charts. Jansch’s lyrics – especially such lines as: “Do you freedom fighters speak with your tongues?” – are given an extra poignancy by Donovan.

In London, Jansch met many of the innovative young acoustic guitar players, including John Renbourn. They were booked for gigs in Soho and Jansch and Renbourn developed a very personal and fascinating interplay between their two guitars; the style became known as folk- baroque

It was in 1968 that Pentangle was formed and it soon became a significant force in music in the latter part of that decade. Jansch’s guitar playing and his growing renown as a songwriter ensured that the band had rock and folk fans. The band’s second album, Sweet Child, a double LP, sold well worldwide and is regarded as the band’s creative high point. Basket of Light, which was released the following year, was their greatest commercial success (Light Flight was a hit as a single after it was used in a BBC sitcom Take Three Girls).

In the Seventies Pentangle toured the UK and America but their fourth album, Cruel Sister, was more traditional and did not sell well. The band’s influence was on the wane and their final album, Solomon’s Seal (1972), was mildly received by the music press. In January 1973 Jansch decided to leave the band but his songs continued to sell, notably the ones he dedicated to his wife Heather Sewell – most obviously Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell.

The original band reformed in 2008, appeared on television and toured to great acclaim. Some noticed, however, there were delays between the numbers, due to Jansch’s throat cancer. They played many old favourites, especially Back Home, an emotional evocation of Edinburgh. Sadly, Jansch had to cancel a show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival because of ill health.

Jansch’s last performance was at a reunion of Pentangle in London two months ago. Jansch received two lifetime achievement awards at the BBC Folk awards – one for his solo achievements in 2001 and the other, in 2007, as a member of Pentangle.

Led Zepplin’s Jimmy Page said: “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that first LP of his in 1965, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No-one in America could touch that.”

Jansch was married three times and is survived by his third wife Loren Auerbach and by two sons Kieron and Adam. Another son, Richard, predeceased him. ALASDAIR STEVEN