Tomorrow evening I was planning on seeing John Renbourn play at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, one stop on a tour he was doing with guitarist Wizz Jones. This morning I opened the paper to learn that he was dead.
With Bert Jansch, John Renbourn co-founded Pentangle in 1967, the brilliant band of musicians which burst traditional categories, fusing folk, blues, jazz and medieval British music into a rhythmic, shimmering sound that has not aged.
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 died some three years ago; now Renbourn is dead too. He was due to play with Wizz Jones in Glasgow on Wednesday night but he failed to turn up. Concerned friends alerted the police who found him at his home in Hawick, Roxburghshire on Thursday morning. It seems that he had died from a heart attack.
Renbourn was a brilliant guitarist whose tastes in music were eclectic and jumped boundaries, fusing British and Celtic folk with blues, jazz, renaissance and medieval music, and classical guitar.
Born and raised in Torquay, Renbourn began playing guitar at an early age. He recently appeared on BBC 6 Music where he described growing up in a musical house in an interview with Cerys Matthews:
My family all played something… there’s a picture of me when I was about five playing on the banjo, so I went through all kids of stuff, all sorts of music. It was just in the early 60s that I was faced with the terrible dilemma of having to get a job, and finding myself preferring to travel and play.
At first Renbourn was drawn to skiffle, the style that became popular as part of the emerging folk music revival in the fifties. In 1964 he left home to study classical guitar in Guildford. There, he began his performing career with an rhythm and blues band called Hogsnort Rupert and the Famous Porkestra. But he was soon drawn to the acoustic blues, playing in Soho blues and folk clubs, where he met many other musicians, including Paul Simon, Davey Graham, and – most importantly – Bert Jansch.
‘I started out trying to play like Big Bill Broonzy’, Renbourn once said, and the Broonzy influence can be heard distictly on his first, eponymous, album. But, listening to that album, there were already signs of Renbourn’s guitar-picking brilliance – and of the diversity of his interests, with his arrangement of John Donne’s Elizabethan poem, ‘Go and catch a falling star’, later performed by Pentangle:
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
In 1966 John recorded Bert and John with Bert Jansch, now regarded as a classic album in which jazz and folk elements mingle with blues. Take, for example, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, written by Charles Mingus in memory of Lester Young:
In 1967, a Danish film crew documented the folk music scene in London. Among the artists featured were Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, filmed shortly before they formed Pentangle:
In 1967 Renbourn and Jansch founded Pentangle, a group whose eclectic interests and experimentation reflected the atmosphere of late-1960s rock and psychedelia, attracting an audience from the rock scene along with the folk crowd. In addition to the two guitarists, the band featured Jacqui McShee on vocals, Danny Thompson on bass and Terry Cox on drums. They remained together until 1978, with Renbourn and Jansch continuing to release solo albums.
The double album Sweet Child remains one of my all-time favourites; it still sounds fresh and exploratory 50 years later. ‘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’, remarked Pete Paphides in a 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: ‘Travelling Song’
Pentangle: ‘Hunting Song’, from a BBC special in 1970 (’13th century rock’n’roll’)
Pentangle: ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ from Live at French TV, 1972
Pentangle: ‘House Carpenter’ (John plays sitar while Bert plays banjo)
Pentangle: ‘In Time’, BBC, 1970
Pentangle: ‘I Got a Feeling’, BBC, 1970
John Renbourn has continued to record and perform live in a variety of styles and contexts. In the mid-1980s he went back to university to study composition at Dartington College of Arts. Since then, he has focused mainly on writing classical music, while still performing in folk settings. Since 2012 he has toured with Wizz Jones, playing a mixture of solo and duo material. He also appeared on Jones’s album Lucky the Man.
John Renbourn: Live at Letterkenny Arts Centre, 2013 (30 minutes)
John Renbourn: ‘Little Niles’, Toronto, 1990
John Renbourn and Wizz Jones: ‘Buckets of Rain’, The Vortex, London, November 2014
Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears
- Guitarist and songwriter John Renbourn, founder of Pentangle, dies (Guardian)
- Remembering Bert Jansch (this blog, October 2011)