For a time, Bert Jansch made it OK to like folk. Unless memory is fooling me, here was a lugubrious, brooding, occasionally difficult figure as cool as anyone in rock. He wrote songs that suited the age and played guitar like a magician. Solo, in duo with John Renbourn or as part of Pentangle, he thrilled us with his technique. Admirers would include Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Martin Simpson, Mike Oldfield and Bernard Butler.
If we had our own guitars, we - and by "we" I mean to include the likes of Paul Simon - dreamed of being able to play Davy Graham's sublime guitar piece Angie a third as well as he did. Membership of Pentangle, a fabulous band that fused folk, pop and jazz, would in a fair world have thrusted him and them to significant stardom.
There came a lull in Jansch's career but he was back in the 1990s.
Bert Jansch died in 2011. He was 67. Had he lived, he would have been 80 on November 3 this year. We've seen a short parade of music people hitting 80 and it seems appropriate to mark what would have been his milestone birthday. A special concert is planned for Nov 4 at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, and among those paying their respects on stage will be Martin Simpson, Jacqui McShee, Robert Plant, Bernard Butler, Kathryn Williams and Sam Lee.
Salut! Live is also doing what it can to honour the occasion. This is the first of Andrew Curry's two-part interview with Karen Kidson, Bert's sister-in-law, who manages the Bert Jansch Foundation, preserving the heritage of a great musician and songwriter. Karen's sister, Loren Auerbach, who married Jansch in 1999, died just two months after his death and the couple are buried together in Highgate Cemetery, north London.
The second part will appear within the next day or two (UPDATE: it has now been published at this link)
Salut! Live will also publish, nearer the anniversary, a short series on selected Jansch songs and some stirring memories of the 1960s London West End folk scene of which he was part ...
Andrew Curry: Let’s start by talking about the 80th birthday concert.
Karen Kidson: Bert would have been 80 this November, so it‘s a good time to celebrate him and remind everybody that he’s still an important touchstone in music. We did a 70th birthday concert, and a Celtic Connections tribute in Glasgow, and it’s always good to get new people in the mix, and people working in different genres. We’re always spoilt for choice for performers.
AC: Martin Simpson has been an ever-present, along with Robert Plant and Bernard Butler. I guess people who don’t know about Bert and his influence might be a bit surprised to see Bernard Butler and Robert Plant being such stalwarts in terms of keeping Bert’s reputation and memory alive?
KK: When I say I represent the Bert Jansch Estate, and people say, ‘Oh, who’s Bert Jansch?’, I say, ‘If you haven’t heard of him, you’ll have heard of the people who have been influenced by him’, and then I reel off names like Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Johnny Marr. Robert Plant’s been increasingly vocal about his admiration for Bert, and he’s now covered It Don’t Bother Me with Alison Krauss, and one of Bert’s co-written songs with Anne Briggs [Go Your Way], so he brings in new listeners. I think he is paying his respects to Bert for how he shaped the sound of Led Zeppelin, with his influence on Jimmy, so it’s lovely that he’s so generous with his time and his band.
AC: I know you have some new performers in the concert in November.
KK: Sarathy Korwar works in different instrumentation, different genres, and he’s based in the UK, but he’s obviously got his heritage in India. He recorded a lot with the person who took over Bert’s studio, and was very aware that he was physically in Bert’s musical space, so I’m really interested to see what he brings to the music. And I’ve followed Kathryn Williams’s career for 20 years but there’s never been an opportunity for her to be part of this
before. But I’m really excited about all of them.
AC: Is there likely to be a television recording this time?
KK: No, you’ll have to be there. Maybe I need to work towards a BBC Bert Jansch Prom concert.
AC: If they can do a Northern Soul Prom, they can do a Bert Jansch Prom.
KK: I don’t see why not. It wouldn’t have to be in London, either.
AC: Let me go back to 2011, which must have been very traumatic—Bert died and Loren had cancer and she died a few months later.
KK: They got their diagnoses a couple of months apart, but they did a huge amount despite that. Bert toured the States with Neil Young three times during various remissions, and put Pentangle back together for Glastonbury, but then they just ran out of road. I had a background in the music industry, and I became more closely involved after they became ill, and then with the Estate. (Bert’s son) Adam, who inherited all the musical copyrights, asked me to keep on looking after the Estate, so I’ve been doing that since the Foundation came into being.
AC: When I was doing my research, I was astonished by how busy Bert was, pretty much right up to his death.
KK: The last show he played was Pentangle at the Royal Festival Hall on the 1st August 2011. (He died on 5th October—ed). I think he wanted to keep working because it gave him a focus.
AC: Obviously Bert had this stellar 1960s, and then he got to the end of Pentangle, and he slips a little out of sight, although he’s still working. But from the mid-1990s onwards he comes back into visibility again. Acoustic Routes gets made in 1992, you see him working with younger artists like Beth Orton. Loren’s influence on that is very visible.
KK: Yes, it’s like a third act. My sister (Loren Auerbach) had known Bert since the mid-80s when they recorded together, and they got back in touch in the mid-90s when she performed with him at the 12 Bar Club, and then they married in 1999. They built his reputation up again through the albums that came out in the mid-to-late ’90s, and up to 2006’s The Black Swan. Mick Houghton, his PR, was very helpful in that, and Geoff Travis at Rough Trade suggested people to work with on The Black Swan, people like Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson, who produced it. Bert was very open to working with these younger people.
Loren had a strategic plan to elevate Bert’s standing and reputation. She used to say that if Pentangle had played standing up they would have been as big as Fleetwood Mac.
AC: You in effect inherited this...
KK: I literally inherited it...
AC: ... and from talking to you at the time, you had a kind of a plan that I guess included the 2013 concert.
KK: Loren had been planning that 70th birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall for years, and with a BBC recording. Bert had recorded a 60th Birthday Concert for the BBC, at St Luke’s in London, with Jacqui McShee from Pentangle, Johnny Marr, Ralph McTell and a few other guests, and we wanted to do something similar. That was all her plan.
AC: You have also been working with Earth Records, and you’ve had quite a busy re-release and new release schedule.
KK: Before he died, most of Bert’s catalogue had reverted to him. It had been on licence to Universal, and the licence was up for renewal. When I took it on full time, one of my first jobs was to decide what to do with that catalogue. Fire Records had been going for a long time, in other genres, but at the time they were just starting the Earth label, and they wanted to do this really beautifully. We decided they would put more love and energy and ideas behind it, and they absolutely have done that.
Earth’s given the covers a classic but modern look, a very consistent look. You can tell the Bert Jansch records immediately. The other thing that you and they have been doing is releasing material that was on tape somewhere but hadn’t been released yet.
KK: Earth has a strong emphasis on vinyl, and a lot of Bert’s stuff hadn’t come out on vinyl. There are quite a few albums from the ‘80s which are relatively obscure compared to his other stuff.
AC: Are you talking about things like LA Turnaround?
KK: More so things like The Ornament Tree and From the Outside . Bert didn’t have a regular record label in the ‘80s, so they were originally small-scale releases.
Earth is also very keen to track down odd albums like the one he recorded with Rod Clements, Leather Launderette, which is one of the biggest rarities because it never got a proper release. We’ve been trying to get the rights to reissue it for 10 years. I’d like that to come out through them one day because they will do it justice.
AC: So there’s still more to come?
KK: I hope so. One good thing about having the Foundation is that concerts come to light that we weren’t aware of and people tell us about them. There are also recordings from the Neil Young tours that has never been released, so there’s a possibility that that will come out some time. There’s not huge amounts left in the vaults, there weren’t lots of out-takes, but we’ve tried to keep the reissues fresh.