Pentangle were the most innovative group to come out of the British folk-blues movement of the mid-1960s, and their music still sounds fresh today. There were two guitarists in the band John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, whose death was reported yesterday.
When I arrived in Liverpool as a raw university fresher in September 1967 I was absorbing music (as you do at that age) from all directions. That summer had been the summer of love and Sgt Pepper, Dylan had taken us beyond folk-protest into the wild mercury sounds of Blonde on Blonde, and that month’s number one was Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)’.
Constantly shimmering in the background were the sounds of folk music – the weekly university folk club sessions were packed back then, with singers like Tom Paxton dropping in. And sometime in that first year, along with the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper, in the Student Union’s Mountford Hall, I saw Pentangle on their first national tour. Their blend of folk, blues and jazz reflected the experimental, boundary-breaking nature of the times.
Bert Jansch was familiar already – he had interpreted Davey Graham’s instantly memorable, trippy instrumental ‘Anji’ (popularised the previous year on Simon and Garfunkel’s folk-rock milestone album, Sounds of Silence). Jansch had given us his version on his eponymous first Lp, recorded with a portable tape player on a borrowed guitar in the kitchen of his London flat. Born in Glasgow, his forebears had come from Germany in the 19th century. The family moved to Edinburgh, where he attended Ainslie Park secondary school. He worked, briefly, as a nurseryman, spending his early wages on a guitar. He sought lessons at the Howff folk club, saying he wanted to play like Big Bill Broonzy. He caught on quick.
That was a zeitgeist album, with songs that spoke of a rambling, uncommitted lifestyle, including one of his most famous tunes, the anti-drugs song ‘Needle of Death’ written after a friend died of an overdose, and a protest song covered by Donovan, ‘Do Your Hear Me Now?’
Hey girl, oh how my heart is torn,
Hey girl, now that your baby’s born,
What shall it cost? Is my freedom lost?
What is the price of nature’s own way.
Hey girl, how could I dress your child,
When this life girl I’m livin’ so wild?
Will your newborn child grow to be as wild?
And walk alone to meet his destiny?
Hey girl, see how I stand a man,
Hey girl, see I’ve no father’s hand.
Would it be a crime to leave at such a time,
When you’ve many claims to make on me?
This sort of thing seemed acceptable at the time, as did the sight of a singer smoking their way through a gig (above). It was the image of the freedom of a life ‘breaking ties that you’ve grown’ that seduced you if you were young and impressionable:
Runnin’ runnin’ from home,
Breakin’ ties that you’d grown
Catchin’ dreams from the clouds
The city sounds burn your soul
Turn your head to the cries
Of loneliness in the night
Yes – and, of course, the exquisite guitar-picking and the gentle, unassuming voice. These were the ingredients that Jansch added to the crystalline loveliness of the Pentangle’s sound alongside John Renbourn’s guitar, Danny Thompson’s bass, Terry Cox’s percussion and Jacqui McShee’s on vocals. At the time, Pentangle’s mix of traditional and band-composed songs, of jazz, folk and blues, was unique. Their performances featured extended solos by the two guitarists and jazz-like improvisations.
‘If you choose the right album and the right age, it’ll keep on educating you for the rest of your life. Sweet Child is one of those records’, writes Pete Paphides ina Guardian tribute. And it’s true: here were entrees to the world of blues (Furry Lewis’ ‘Turn Your Money Green’), traditional folk (‘Watch The Stars’, ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’), contemporary folk (Anne Briggs’ ‘The Time Has Come’), medieval dance music (‘Brentzel Gay’, ‘La Rotta’) and jazz (Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat’ and Haitian Fight Song’ and Terry Cox’s tribute to Moondog).
Pentangle: Light Flight
Pentangle: A Woman Like You (written by Bert Jansch)
In a perceptive tribute on The Quietus, Barnaby Smith writes:
When Jansch arrived in London from Scotland in 1964, he was already an aficionado of American blues forms, and soon became an authority on steadfastly traditional English folk as defined by Cecil Sharp’s archives. But neither of these things were really ever enough to contain him, as can be heard in the exploratory nature of his first couple of LPs, Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me, both released in 1965. Another great guitarist on the London scene, John Renbourn, was listening closely, and the two made a pair of albums as a duo. Together they veritably revolutionised the harmonics of guitar playing. […]
Jansch, like his friends the Incredible String Band, had a strong penchant for travel and shambled his way across Europe multiple times, as well as to North Africa. Along with opening his eyes musically, Jansch assumed the existence of the so-called beatnik, further distancing him from the ‘people’s music’ of the folk clubs, complicating his oeuvre even more.
It was early in 1967 when Pentangle first played together at the folk club run by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn at the Horseshoe pub in Tottenham Court Road in London. As Danny Thompson, who issued from Soho’s jazz clubs with his rhythm partner Terry Cox to make the jazz-folk connection with Renbourn, Jansch and McShee, later recalled:
It was such an important time musically in London. People have said to me, ‘Cor you were lucky getting that Pentangle gig!’ but Bert and John had simply asked, ‘Do you fancy coming down the pub for a play – there’s no money.’ And I went. It was successful because we loved what we were doing. I hope Pentangle wasn’t a ‘clever’ operation. The band was an honest ‘ere-we-go – five geezers having a play.