Without Andrew Curry, this series honouring Bert Jansch - on what would today, Friday Nov 3 2023 - have been his 80th birthday - would not have happened. Thanks to Andrew ...
See all items covering the Bert Jansch commemoration at this link: https://www.salutlive.com/bert-jansch/
... and, fittingly, here are Andrew's thoughts on a traditional song of seduction and betrayal, Blackwaterside, concluding our look at Jansch songs important to individual admirers.
One piece remains to be posted: Ian Evas's memories of Les Cousins, the 1960s Soho haunt of folkies and future folk-rockers. My warm thanks to all those who have visited this little site to check our coverage of this milestone ...
It seems characteristic of Bert Jansch that one of his signature songs is a traditional Irish ballad that has since been sung by dozens of others and was known in the folk repertoire when he recorded it. But his version is made memorable, distinctive and instantly recognisable by his guitar style.
Blackwaterside came into the folk repertoire through an archive recording made in the early 1950s by the BBC of an Irish traveller, Mary Doran, with a little help from the collector A L Lloyd.
The River Blackwater is in Wexford. The history here is a little murky: the same BBC session also recorded versions of the song by her husband Paddy Doran and Winnie Ryan.
Jansch learnt the song from Anne Briggs, who may have learnt it from A L Lloyd, or from a recording by Isla Cameron on the Jupiter Book of Ballads, a 1959 collection that combined song and spoken verse. At the time Jansch and Briggs were performing regularly together in folk clubs, and spent time during the day teaching each other songs. Briggs was thrilled by the depth that Jansch’s finger picking brought to the songs. She told the biographer Colin Harper:
'Everybody up to that point was accompanying traditional songs in a very... three-chord way.... It was why I always sang unaccompanied... but seeing Bert's freedom from chords, I suddenly realised—this chord stuff, you don't need it'
It seems appropriate that Jansch learned the song from Briggs, whose purity of tone as a singer and her reluctance to be accompanied marked her out as something of a purist. Jansch’s original version appears on his Jack Orion album, released in 1966.
When Briggs eventually recorded Blackwaterside, a few years later, she accompanied it with a light finger-picked guitar backing.
Blackwaterside is a song of a maiden’s regret (it is also known as The False Young Man). A young woman is tricked into having sex by the promise of marriage:
All through the fair part of that night
We lay in sport and play
Til this young man arose and gathered his clothes
Saying, "Fare thee well today."
That's not the promise that you gave to me
When you lay upon my breast
For you had made me believe with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west
Afterwards, the false suitor mocks her for having believed his promise, tellin her that she has only herself to blame. But if the story is stark, it is accompanied by a wonderful melody.
Blackwaterside was a staple of Jansch’s performance over the years, and different versions appear across his records. On Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning, recorded in Sheffield in 1974, he’s playing with the time, speeding it up and slowing it down. In Live at MacCabe’s Record Shop, seven years later, there’s a bit more attack on the song. The guitar has become more percussive and the words more clipped.
By the time he gets to Live at the 12 Bar, in 1995, the melody is more foregrounded than the lyric, and the shape of the song is stretched in all directions as he plays it. It sounds as much inflected by the spirit of jazz as folk music, to the point where you wish that Pentangle had recorded a version with him. Danny Thompson and Terry Cox could have brought a lot to the song.
The song has been recorded by dozens of artists since Jansch’s first recording. Among his contemporaries, for example: John Renbourn, Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson. More recently, the Oysterband, Cara Dillon, and Bonny Light Horseman.
But, of course, the most notorious version is by Led Zeppelin, on their first LP, called Black Mountain Side and credited to Jimmy Page. Al Stewart had taught Jansch’s version to Page, who had played on Stewart’s first record. Wikipedia says that Page’s version was “adapted without credit” and that “the guitar arrangement closely follows Bert Jansch’s version”: an article on NPR that “Jimmy Page picked it up — almost notes for note”.
Lawyers were consulted, but the view was that it would be hard to prove copyright in a version of a traditional song, and Jansch would have been on the hook for the legal costs. All the same, Jansch is quoted in a book about Led Zeppelin as saying that Page “ripped me off, didn't he? Or let's just say he learned from me.” Robert Plant engineered some kind of reconciliation, years later.
With hindsight, Page’s royalties from the song would barely have covered the cost of his swimming pool filters. But for Jansch (and for that other famous case of ‘learning’, from Martin Carthy), a shared songwriting credit would have made both folk singers comfortably better off.
There’s a playlist of some of the versions of Blackwaterside mentioned in this piece on Spotify.