Bert Jansch, R.I.P.
Influential British folk guitarist Bert Jansch, 67, passed away on Wednesday night in London from lung cancer. Having watched Jansch in performance when he opened for Neil Young just over five months ago, it's shocking to say the least: "while Jansch's singing voice at times came out murmured and indistinct, his finger-picking was stable and crystalline," I noted back in April. That night, each note pealed like a bell, making his formidable skills apparent to the audience.
Born in Glasgow, Jansch grew up in Edinburgh and dug deep into American folk music of the time, devouring the records made by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie while also absorbing the influences of jazz players like Charles Mingus and Jimmy Guiffre. When Jansch emerged on the London folk scene in the early '60s, his playing was a revelation. As noted in Colin Harper's 2006 book Dazzling Stranger:
He was listening to jazz, country blues, modern blues and everything else. There were lots of people working in one area or another but nobody before Bert was actually putting them all together and blending them in that way... he just appeared fully formed.
Jansch's name might not resonate much with classic-rock fans, but it's safe to say that the genre bears his fingerprint, due in no small part to the influence he wielded on its biggest stars. The two most obvious disciples of Jansch's strong, indelible picking style are Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Neil Young; both appropriated some of Jansch's earliest recordings in finding their own voice. Compare Jansch's 1966 recording of a song composed with one-time girlfriend/ folk singer Anne Briggs called "Black Water Side" with Page's solo acoustic cut on Led Zeppelin's first album, "Black Mountain Side."
Bert Jansch, "Black Water Side"
Led Zeppelin, "Black Mountain Side"