An innovative and highly respected folk singer and guitarist sometimes referred to as the British Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch died this morning of cancer at a north London hospice. He was 67.
While Jansch has remained a cult figure in the United States, his stirring, doleful vocals and mesmerizing, finger-picked guitar playing influenced and inspired scores of great artists, including Nick Drake, Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, The Smiths' Johnny Marr, and Neil Young, who invited Jansch to open up for him on last year's "Twisted Road" tour. In spite of having just gone through treatment for a golf ball-size tumor in one of his lungs, Jansch was in fine voice for the shows, and as always, his guitar playing was impeccable.
Jansch was born on Nov. 3, 1943 in Glasgow, and grew up in Edinburgh, later picking up the guitar as a teenager and hanging out at a local folk club. Like the rest of his generation of aspiring folkies, Jansch followed the lead of artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, eventually leaving school and touring the U.K. for a series of one-night stands in British music venues. By the mid-'60s, Jansch found himself in London, and released his first record, Bert Jansch, in 1965. The album became a hit, and lead to subsequent Dylan comparisons, but Jansch was definitely different kind of artist. For all of Dylan's considerable gifts as a songwriter, Jansch was in a different league as an instrumentalist. His resplendent adaptation of the traditional song "Blackwaterside," from 1966's Jack Orion, spotlights this beautifully. Jimmy Page later "borrowed" the melody for Led Zeppelin's "Black Mountain Side."
In 1968, Jansch co-founded the pioneering folk group Pentangle, which took up most of his touring and recording time for the next five years. Incorporating rock and psychedelic influences into their reverent British folk sound, Pentangle was centered on the brilliant guitar work of Jansch and his friend, John Renborn. The group was skilled enough to cover a variety of other genres, including blues, jazz, and prog, and mix them together into something that was unique to Pentangle. While admired in the U.S., the group was a true sensation in England, with 1969's Basket Of Light hitting the top five of the albums chart.
After leaving Pentangle in 1973, Jansch took a break from touring, and retired to a farm near Wales. But he returned to music two years later, and resumed his busy concert and recording schedule. He battled alcoholism in the late '80s, but he was able to stop drinking and continue playing shows, often collaborating with other artists on albums or short tours. Jansch maintained his performance schedule up until almost the end of his life. Only recently did he have to cancel a live date in Edinburgh due to illness.
For those that know Jansch's music, he will always be a pivotal figure in 20th century British folk music. As Johnny Marr has said, "He completely reinvented guitar playing and set a standard that is still unequalled today … without Bert Jansch, rock music as it developed in the 60s and 70s would have been very different."