Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch, storied fingerpicker and warble-voiced bard of the British folk movement, achieved quiet glory as a guitar stylist and member of the folk group Pentangle, in which he was paired with equally legendary but perhaps slightly less interesting guitarist John Renbourn.

Of all the lost clips that YouTube has coughed up, Jansch’s coffee house rendition of his own “Moonshine,” circa 1975, is possibly my favorite, so redolent of days when musicians—very good ones—lugged their battered guitar cases through the Tube. A musician of Jansch’s purism and fully adult intellect is unthinkable these days. Such is the destructive lure of the Victoria’s Secret model and the Saturday Night Live appearance.

The lyrics are lovely:

Moonshine soft and clear,
In a death-black endless sky,
Cartwheelin’ bright stars twinklin’ down.
From the shadows calls the night owl,
He’s echoing my loneliness.

Hearken to the sweet leaves
That dance so merrily
Oh, how I wish the wind would do the same for me.

From the shadows calls the night owl,
He’s echoing my loneliness.

Come the stag down from the mountain,
Come the owl from where he sleeps,
Come the eagle from his high, high nest,
To where the salmon, they swim and they sleep,
Come fast and hope to set me free.

Moonshine soft and clear,
In a death-black endless sky,
Cartwheelin’ bright stars twinklin’ down.
From the shadows calls the night owl,
He’s echoing my loneliness.

Here Pentangle performs in the lush first flush of its jazzy, bluesy thirteenth-century folk rock. Jansch is seated to the right, the bearded Renbourn to the left. Jacqui McShee could not sound or look more the part of the British folk chanteuse. Her pale, somber, chinless face is a lovely study in the art of the church altarpiece, lacking only a halo and a swaddled Christ.

Jansch’s influence on Jimmy Page’s acoustic style is patent. Page’s “Black Mountain Side” from Led Zeppelin I is a note-for-note nicking of Jansch’s “Blackwaterside,” which appeared on his 1966 album Jack Orion. Jansch was miffed enough to consider suing Page, but he could not afford a legal crusade on a folk guitarist’s salary and let the matter drop. One can easily construe Tolkienian epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore” (featuring Jansch’s old protégé Sandy Denny) as grand bastardizations of Jansch’s antiquarian interests. If perhaps the more gifted musician, Page is certainly the less developed human being. With Page, a bit of Nigel Tufnel begins to creep into the cultural admixture and never really leeches out. Three versions of “Black Waterside”: Jansch, Page, Denny.

Jansch’s complex, open-tuned stylings equally influenced Nick Drake, the Keats of British folk, in whom the movement’s decade of research and experiment became something new and consummate. As far as I know, there is no extant footage of Drake performing live, but a tune like “Cello Song” gives the feel of his exquisite little nocturnes.

Another lovely Drake piece:

To have schooled both Jimmy Page and Nick Drake is to have helped midwife the music of the twentieth century. I hope that Jansch, his work done, rests where he belongs, in some old churchyard, amid the moss and weathered stone.

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David Ross

Dr. David A. Ross is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats (2009) and the co-editor/co-translator of The Search for the Avant-Garde, 1946­–1969 (2012), the descriptive catalogue of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies and has served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. His enthusiasms include high modernism, modal jazz, Chinese ink-brush painting, and really well-made pizza.

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