Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch passed away earlier today, succumbing to lung cancer which seemed, at one point, to be in remission, but sadly returned. Jansch played a memorable show at Mississippi Studios in June of last year, and seeing his breathtaking guitar work up close and personal was astonishing. (He also was an unannounced opener at Neil Young's Portland show last year at the Schnitz.) At any rate, I had the opportunity to speak with Jansch in advance of the Mississippi Studios show for an article.
It seems appropriate to post the full transcript of the interview now. Jansch was polite and thoughtful, and willing to talk about his early days as a performer, as well as drop some hints of new material that he was working on—a new album which, sadly, wasn't released in his lifetime. Spookily, the first thing we talked about was his illness.
This interview took place on June 4, 2010.
MERCURY: You had some dates scheduled for last year and had to cancel those. How is everything doing now? Are you fully recovered?
JANSCH: Last year, almost to the day actually, they discovered a tumor in my lung. But since then the treatment has been well, gone well, and I’m in full remission.
What exactly was the illness, if you don’t mind my asking?
But things are in full remission? That’s great news!
Yeah, it’s fantastic. [Big cough] It’s left me a bit breathless, though.
Are you working on new material?
Yeah, I’ve been slowly hammering away at a few songs… when I could… So I’ll be playing a couple of them. I’m already playing a couple on Neil’s tour.
This date is with Pegi Young, his wife. I don’t know her music too much… Are you familiar with it at all?
Not really, no, although I’ve read quite a bit. I met her the other night, although I met her at Bridge School in 2006. But that was very brief… I met her for the first time, really, about two nights ago.
Are you doing a solo set this tour?
Oh, yeah, yeah.
What I had read was a little unclear—I guess she has a band and you’re doing a solo set.
You aren’t sharing a band or anything like that.
Is playing with a band something that you still do every now and then? Is it something you enjoy, even?
Well, back home I play with a variety of musicians locally. Paul Wassif is one; he’s a young guitar player. Bernard Butler sometimes, and Beth Orton if she’s around. But I don’t really have a band as such. It’s based on a solo sort of performance. And the Pentangle, we’ve still got that up and going.
There was a reunion a couple years ago, right?
How was that?
Lovely, very good. I enjoyed that.
Is that something you might do again?
Yeah, I think if all goes well, if not next year then the one after. 2012 or something. It takes a long time to actually organize any gigs for the band because it’s not just me, you know?
Something that people always mentioned when you come up is that there are so many artists that you’ve influenced, very directly and also indirectly, too. Most of them have finally come around and acknowledged that. I know Neil Young is a big champion of yours, obviously. But I wonder if you felt like there was a period of time where that wasn’t the case, that you weren’t being acknowledged, or if there’s been a sort of resurgence of interest in you and you think the timing is noteworthy.
Well, a thing I’ve noticed is it all depends on yourself, really. I can’t go out of my way to seek these things. I carry on. [laughs] With blind faith, I carry on. You know, I love playing. I don’t get it carry out of the realms of music. I’m very honored by all the, uh, what other people have said.
Do you think there is a cycle in music, though, where certain things fall out of fashion and come around again?
Well, that does happen with folk music, which is where I started. The folk world tends to be on a folk-club level, which shifts itself, you know. Clubs come and they go, you know. And you get periods where the clubs are very, very active and the young people in them love to see music. And it’s right underneath the popular music side of things. Occasionally it’ll rise to the surface.
Well, what were the sorts of things when you were first starting out that attracted you to music?
In the very beginning, I think Big Bill Broonzy probably. I’d always been interested in guitars since I was seven years old, so by the time I was 15 I started to go to this club in Edinburgh called the Howff. I took lessons from a girl called Jill Doyle, who happened to be Davey Graham’s sister, so I knew Davey Graham quite well in the early days. He actually influenced me more than any other guitar player, I think, in the way of what’s possible, what you could do with a guitar. But in the early days I met people at clubs who came to the club, like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Pete Seeger… And there was a guitar teacher called Len Partridge who got me into playing blues.
You said you’d first been interested in the guitar at age seven. What sorts of players were around at that time that drew you to it?
My schoolteacher brought a guitar into the class in my primary school, and from that moment on, you know, because I’d never seen a guitar before. And then it was like Lonnie Donegan, all the rock and roll stuff. And then when I was about 15 I discovered an EP of Big Bill Broonzy in a shop and I studied it for the next two years! [laughs]
Are there things that you’re still listening to now, or any current music…?
Well, I got into listening to Espers, a band over there, they are very good. I don’t take much notice of music until I actually meet the people who are creating it. So that’s backwards way of doing things, but it’s always been my way.
Espers is very interesting because they are obviously very folk-influenced, but they also flirt a little bit with black metal, which is sort of intrinsically linked to folk, but a lot of people don’t think of it that way. I wonder if you’re surprised by the proximity of something called black metal to what you’re doing.
I never really thought of it like that before. [Politely] I’ll have to pay more attention. Yeah, there’s lots of players I’m still listening to—traditional amazing players. Anne Briggs…
There’s a band here in Portland called the Decemberists who recently did a whole album based on one her EPs, The Hazards of Love… What about singing? Was that something that you were doing right from the beginning?
When I first started in the club, Jill, who was giving me lessons, she’d left and gone to live in Glasgow, and the other teacher was Archie Fisher, and he left as well, so in the club there was nobody to give lessons. So that’s the first thing I did, was actually teach the guitar. I was about 16. But in the same breath, by then I’d been listening to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and listening to blues as well, and in the club were traditional singers, like Jimmy MacBeath, Jeannie Robertson, and people like that—who were real traditional singers. And without knowing, I was being influenced by them. But I started singing my songs, making up songs as I was going along. And I virtually sung right from then… I’m not much of a singer, but… [laughs]
Can you tell me more about the new material you’re working on?
Well, it’s much more blues oriented, the songs I’ve written so far. And they will be about what I’ve been up to in the last year or so. I always write from my own point of view. But it will be leaning slightly towards the blues, I should think.
Do you have a renewed interest in the blues that might have led to that?
No, no, it’s just how each song turned out [laughs]. Everything’s very organic with me.