Bert Jansch: Our Bonny Portmore

Bert Jansch ~ November 3, 1943 – October 5, 2011

The world lost two innovators yesterday; one in a splash of headlines, the other quietly in a London hospital; both of cancer.

I believe the first time I heard Bert Jansch would have been in Albuquerque in about 1993. My listening habits were slowly expanding beyond The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan into influences and lesser known peers. I frequented a small used record shop in the Nob Hill district of Albuquerque off of Central Ave. where the sales clerk (I sadly never asked his name) would put a “you have to listen to this” album in my hand and send me on my way. He was mostly a jazz and pop man and over a couple of years turned me onto Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Cole Porter, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk and Sidney Bichet. He also gave me albums by John Fahey, Jean Ritchie, John Hartford, Ry Cooder and Norman Blake. One lost afternoon when I walked into his store he looked up from a book and beckoned me to the counter. He handed me a CD and said “listen to this, it’s pretty cool.”

The album was called “The Ornament Tree” by a Scottish singer I’d never heard of named Bert Jansch. I went home and first heard that accent so thick I could barely make out the words. The words I could make out weren’t necessarily words I knew and the stories sung beyond my grasp. It was beguiling. His baritone seemed alien and olde. His guitar work was to be envied and never (at least by my clumsy fingers) duplicated. Ten of the twelve songs were traditional and the album never expands beyond it’s roots. I was listening to it just a few years ago and for the first time noticed the copyright; 1990. I was shocked, surely this was twenty years older than that. I had bought it practically new.

Bert Jansch himself though was certainly not new as I would come to learn. He will be remembered as a foundation of the British Folk movement of the 1960s as solo artist and a member of Pentangle. Jimmy Page and Neil Young were fans and students of his open tunings and complex hard picked finger rolls. Page was even almost sued after lifting Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional tune Black Water Side after he renamed it Black Mountain Side and claimed it as his own. Jansch couldn’t afford the lawyers to go through with the case.

Black Water Side, Bert Jansch

Black Mountain Side, Led Zeppelin

Jansch was born in Glasgow on November 3rd, 1943 and like many of his contemporaries fell in love with American rock ‘n’ roll through Elvis Presley. He also listened heavily to Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle music which blended folk and blues and jug band music through a cracked British prism.

Wreck of the Old ’97, Lonnie Donegan

Anne Briggs, a gifted and tortured singer if there ever was one, turned Jansch onto older blues records and folk singers and out of that mix grew an extremely gifted and original guitarist.

Polly Vaughan, Anne Briggs

He was also a drunk which is nothing new, but simply noted for the connection of madness and spirits that run rampant through the creative soul.

So much of our music and poetry today thuds around flatfooted. Rare is the well written metaphor. I think of works like Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things as almost  lost art.  The Ornament Tree is a fine old folksong in that tradition traced back to at least the late 1790s though the melody most likely is older. There was an actual Ornament Tree; a mighty Irish oak that supposedly was felled by a terrific storm in 1760. The lamentation of a fallen tree, of times passed and gone and a world not as it once was spill out of the song only to be sung honestly, mournfully by each passing generation.

Life is a fragile thing and even the mighty oaks fall. Remember to kiss your sweetheart and kids tonight. If you have neither perhaps raise a glass of whiskey with a friend and sing another great Scottish poet’s song Auld Lang Syne. Cheers Bert.

The Ornament Tree (Bonny Portmore), Bert Jansch


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
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