I was proud to be asked to write sleevenotes for the 1966 Bert Jansch/John Renbourn album Bert and John, and happy the other day when a finished copy turned up. I’m hopeful a cheque will follow. Anyway, for anyone who has never heard it, this is a great album – and it was nice to be able to include some thoughts from Bert and John themselves – even though I never exactly grilled them on this topic when I met them – and from Heather Wood from The Young Tradition. The notes themselves are after the break, while there’s more from Heather down the column.
Although it is a rare sunny day in the summer of 1966, these two young men have chosen to remain indoors. In the gloom of the front room in their flat at 23 St Edmund’s Terrace, on the fringes of London’s Primrose Hill, they are transfixed by an ancient scholastic pastime: the Chinese game of territory, Go.
“It was the only time I’d seen anyone playing it,” remembers the photographer Brian Shuel, who captured images of the players, cups of tea and cigarettes at hand, as their game continued. “They were consumed by it. They didn’t want to be photographed, because they wanted to be playing Go. So I said, ‘You get on with it, and I’ll take some pictures.’ Later on we went to the park.”
This blurring of boundaries between the domestic and professional didn’t only extend to the cover image, but to the creation and recording of Bert Jansch’s fourth album – a 1966 collaborative work with John Renbourn called Bert And John.
For a year previously, Jansch and Renbourn had shared a residence at Somali Road in Cricklewood. Upstairs: the two collaborators, and another musician friend called Les Bridger, who played piratical parts in west end shows and owned a Martin guitar on the never-never. Downstairs: the Young Tradition, an a capella trio with an affection for the folk songs of Sussex, for hosting visiting musicians from overseas, and for hearty all-night carousing.
“I loved Bert and John,” says Heather Wood, the Young Tradition’s surviving member. “We hung out a lot, shared our last shilling for the gas meter. We were all broke. I remember them boiling their strings to make them last a bit longer. I loved their music.”
When The Young Tradition’s all night hospitality became too much for them, Jansch and Renbourn decamped to their own lodgings. There, the pair’s musical collaboration grew seamlessly out of their domestic arrangement. Producer Bill Leader, meanwhile, generally recorded their albums in his own home.
“They were made in flats,” Bert told me in 2009. “John would guest on my album, and he on mine – partly because we were in the same house. We didn’t do gigs together, funnily enough. We were two separate identities, but on albums, we collaborated.”
Informality was key. “If you’ve just got two guitarists you sit in the room with them,” remembers Bill Leader, who recorded the album in the back room of his flat at 5 North Villas, Camden. “The whole session flies through, because it’s all done on a nod and a wink, and a shrug of the shoulders. If somebody fucked up, then you’d start again – but it wasn’t an elaborate thing.”
Work from 1965 had offered a small glimmer of what the pair might be capable of. On Renbourn’s 1966 debut, recorded the previous year, instrumentals like “Noah And Rabbit” (rhythmically a cousin of “Oh My Babe” from Jansch’s second, It Don’t Bother Me) and “Blue Bones” (a loping jazz-blues number) privilege John’s chop over Bert’s direction, in a warm and improvisational idiom.
“Lucky Thirteen”, meanwhile, at the tail end of It Don’t Bother Me is different again, proceeding at a fair clip, but the song still strongly suggesting the complementary modes the pair would bring to their later work together. Renbourn’s playing is fleet and fluid with an elastic sense of time; Jansch’s filled with passion and snap, a partnership as intuitive as that between the tide and the rocks. “We found that our styles of guitar playing were slightly different,” Bert told me. “My playing is more raw and rhythmic, John’s melodic and light. You put the two together, and it’s a really nice combination.”
“I think John had a lot more technique than Bert,” says Heather Wood. “Bert had the songwriting chops and was totally charismatic. He’d stumble on stage, drunk as a skunk, mumble his way through some songs, and he was wonderful.”
John Renbourn first heard word of Bert Jansch via a small poster in Collet’s record shop discreetly announcing the arrival of “Bert Jansch: best blues in town”. Intrigued, and in the company of a fellow player, Wizz Jones, he went to see Jansch play at the Scots Hoose, a pub on the Charing Cross Road popular with expat Scottish, which ran a folk club run out of its upstairs room. “Bert was staggering around outside, taking a break,” Renbourn told me, “then afterwards we went to someone’s house to smoke some dope…”
Jansch and Renbourn found they had a lot in common, enjoying not only blues but also jazz and other music. “We both liked skiffle, went hitchhiking,” Renbourn told me. “It’s not hard to see where his stuff’s coming from. We fell into it, even though we never worked very much. There was whole lot of stuff happening at that time.”
Jansch and Renbourn discovered the legendary folk revival venue Les Cousins (colloquially: “the cousins”), through Les Bridger, who discovered it by falling down its stairs. By 1965, the pair became independently-featured artists at the Greek Street basement venue, whose all-night sessions demanded resourcefulness as well as repertoire from its performers. Occasionally, they would knock ideas about among themselves.
After two albums of his own original material, Jansch’s third album Jack Orion, was (with the exception of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) an intense and original exploration of traditional material, featuring considerable contribution from Renbourn. At just 27 minutes, and with a marked absence of maidens tricked into surrendering their virtue by enchanted fiddlers, Bert And John might to some ears feel a little slight. Reviewing it in the Melody Maker, folk correspondent Karl Dallas deemed it “pleasant” – but then people had said much the same thing of Miles Davis’s Sketches Of Spain.
Bert And John is a slim volume, but a powerful one. If Jack Orion sounds like a night out amid the traditionalists and the modernists of the London folk scene, simultaneously ribald and academic, boozy and purposeful, Bert And John is like the vulnerable morning after, the album returning to the concerns of the modern world in a rather more subdued mood. There are only two vocal compositions on the album, but the first in particular is key to its tone.
“Soho” finds Jansch applying the magical reportage he first employed on “Needle Of Death” to the streets he frequents in his professional life. He surveys London’s historically seedy heart as a neutral observer would, noting it as a place of crime, but also of vibrant colour, anatomizing its function not only as a marketplace for dreams and sexual fantasies, but also, perhaps more mundanely, for fruit and vegetables.
It’s a wonderful song, in which you can almost hear the streets being swept; watch the reveller emerging into the sunlight, bleary-eyed and with empty pockets. A snapshot of the influence of the piece in the context of its time is to be found in the running order of a home demo made by Sandy Denny, where it sits alongside Roud ballads, Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run The Game” and Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”.
Though early in the record, “Soho” feels like a pivot point. Before it, the playing swings towards a fruity and adventurous clipjoint jazz. On “East Wind”, Jansch and Renbourn comfortably manage the modalities of Jimmy Giuffre, as Bert had done on “Smokey River” the previous year. “Piano Tune” sounds minted for Tom Courtenay strolling on a Pinewood soundstage, while the pair offer a confident version of Charles Mingus’s valediction to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.
After it, the easeful mood subsides to introduce playing that is as introspective as it is technically accomplished. While Jansch’s recent excursions in traditional material had relished the drama in the narrative form, (i)Bert And John(i) was for the most part about what it didn’t say.
There was still some jauntiness. “Tic-Tocative” and “Red’s Favourite”, suggested that the folk/jazz “third way” that the pair later pursued in Pentangle was less a conceptual strategy, more an inspiring default position for the pair. The courtly poise of tracks like “Orlando”, (a masterclass in harmonics), the later “No Exit” or “Along The Way”, meanwhile, feel like the product of rather more meticulous, strategic work, these instinctive players now turned watchmakers, working in ever more perfect miniatures. “I think John had a clearer idea of what he wanted to do than Bert,” says Bill Leader. “He had a tidier mind. Bert – maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t know. He maybe cared slightly less, too.”
Anne Briggs had been the spirit guide to “Black Waterside”, and here she is present again, this time via a version of one of her own compositions, “The Time Has Come”. The song recounts the parting of the ways at the end of an affair, and its crestfallen nature isn’t inappropriate in this contemplative album. After this hushed interlude, the closing “After The Dance” comes as a natural release: Bert keeping rhythmic order and offering deep string bending, while John supplies a more delicate and aerial playing.
A couple of weeks before his death in March 2015 (Bert Jansch died in October 2011), Renbourn was still attaining this infinitely accomplished form. Playing in a duo with Wizz Jones in London, an audience could hear the unique partnership that he and Jones had when playing together – but also feel by implication the one between Renbourn and Jansch.
That night Jones and Renbourn played Bert’s “Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning” with a delicacy and quiet joy that also seemed to conjure the courtly and transient nature of the (i)Bert And John(i) work. Fleeting as a creative moment, but all the more precious for not being repeated in quite the same way again. At the end of the song, Wizz Jones saluted the composer.
“Bert Jansch,” he said simply. “We shall not see his like again.”
JOHN ROBINSON, July 2015