Bert Jansch Folk revival (once again): ‘Freak folk’ scene discovers U.K. master

By Mark Guarino

Bert Jansch is touring the U.S. for the first time in eight years to promote “The Black Swan” (Drag City), his first album released on an American label. Yet now in his fifth decade of making music, he not consider he is in the throes of a comeback.   

“I feel that folk music as a subject is one of those musics where it never actually goes away but it’s always there,” he said. “It’s a fashion that recycles every generation basically.”    

The Scottish-born songwriter and guitarist is one of the most revered figures in British folk music since the 1960’s. In his early days his fluent, fingerpicking style, incorporating jazz and blues, was cited by emerging rock heroes like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Mike Oldfield and Donovan as a major influence on their work. Page took Jansch’s version of the traditional folk song “Blackwaterside” to create Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” and Young is quoted as saying Jansch is to the acoustic guitar as Jimi Hendrix was to the electric. On Townshend’s “Scoop” collections of demos, you can hear the frisky fretwork and brooding melancholy Jansch was best known for.   

Yet Jansch, who turned 63 earlier this month, remained largely a cult figure in the U.S. due to the rock boom that silenced the folk revival that came before it. Unlike Nick Drake, a contemporary on the British folk scene, he didn’t benefit from the exposure of dying young. He saw folk music just as much of a jolt to the status quo as rock. In the country blues of Big Bill Broonzy to the fingerpicking style of Doc Watson or British experimentalist Davy Graham, Jansch didn’t see folk music as a traditionalist’s art, but was drawn more to the expressive potential of the acoustic guitar.    

“In the sixties, we were rebelling against what was there before. Because the BBC over here was … the establishment. You were listening to an offshoot of the government and the restrictions that were put on it,” said by phone from his home in London. “The big band jazz stuff, Frank Sinatra, stuff like that, that was about as free as music ever got. So either you went out to a folk club and found the music for real or you listened to (the BBC). That was the choice.”   

As Bob Dylan ended the folk music boom in the U.S. by turning to the electric guitar, the British folk scene remained undeterred. “A lot of people complained about it,” he said, laughing. “They certainly did. I don’t think it made any difference at all.” To Jansch, the real revolutionary was Graham, a genre-bending guitarist who incorporated Indian ragas and other Middle Eastern inflections. Jansch would later enjoy a hit by covering Graham’s 1962 instrumental “Anji.” “His influence over the British scene altogether was enormous,” Jansch says today.   

Although he continued to make music both under his name and with the popular British folk band Pentangle, Jansch is receiving his most flattering dues this year with the release of “Black Swan,” a collection of new and traditional songs. The album is bolstered by the appearance of young admirers including Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart. Members of the so-called “freak folk” scene of recent years, they hear in Jansch’s music the sensual melancholy and inward-sounding psychedelics that was prevalent in acoustic music of the 1960’s. Contemporary artists like harpist Joanna Newsom, chamber folk trio Espers and the eccentric New Yorkers Animal Collective share the striking individualism of players from that era.    

Jansch finds the new attention curious but at the same time, “it makes sense.” “When I look at bands like Espers and all that, they all seem to be doing exactly what I was doing myself in a way back in the sixties. It seems to be a regeneration of almost the same thing.”   

He said he understands why their discovery of his music happened so quickly as opposed to young people of his era who had to hunt down new sounds single by single. “The only difference are the sources nowadays for learning new stuff are far greater than they ever were,” he said. “Obviously people are (still) search for music they haven’t heard before that’s new and exciting. But there’s a lot more sources. Nowadays you walk into a Virgin Megastore or one of those, you can lose yourself in there.”   

This fall Jansch has removed himself from the quiet life he lives with his wife, a sculpter, and is meeting his U.S. audience. He recently met Neil Young when he played Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit, backed by Banhart’s band. Young joined him to play “Ambulance Blues,” a song Young has long said was directly influenced by “Needle of Death,” the song on Jansch’s first album that he wrote about a friend who became a casualty of heroin use.   

Still, he remains humble about all the recent attention. “The last time I spoke to (Young) was back in the sixties. And that’s a long time,” he said. “I know of (Young’s appreciation) but to me, it’s just a curiosity. But having met the guy, he’s a great guy.”

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