Precocious in talent, wise in outlook, Bert Jansch had something like the voice of experience by the time he was 21. His 1965 debut album was recorded in a London flat, but seemed the product of a far wider world. The songs spoke philosophically of love, war, and death, while the music – he accompanied himself on adventurous acoustic guitar – travelled from the rural American south to the North African souq. Comment is often made on the cover photograph, a handsome portrait of the artist by Brian Shuel, and well it might be. This isn't an image of someone trying to please – more wondering what an audience might have to show him.
Nor was this at all misleading. Down a career of nearly 50 years (he died of cancer in 2011, aged 67) Jansch doggedly followed his own co-ordinates. There was a successful group (Pentangle, a folk-rock band), but Jansch historically defined his own terms. This current release is set to begin a planned 50th anniversary reissue of his strong run of 1960s albums, remastered with new sleeve notes, but there were also later experiments with production and arrangement. By the time of his rediscovery in the 1990s, a new generation of players were on board, all eager to support his cause.
Some might say this was very much the defining note of his career – to gain respect, but never quite cash in on it. Jansch's third album Jack Orion (1966), contains two of his most famous arrangements of traditional folk material: The Waggoner's Lad and Black Waterside. No suit was ever brought, but to listen to these songs as arranged by Jansch alongside Gallows Pole or Black Mountainside on their respective albums by Led Zeppelin is to have occasion to turn to an imaginary camera, arch an eyebrow and say with deep shade of meaning: "What a remarkable coincidence."
There's also a fairly close kinship to be found between Neil Young's Ambulance Blues and Jansch's Needle Of Death, a song from this debut album, but at least Young had the class to ask Jansch to support him on tour in the US in 2010. From the stage, he also praised the man: "When I was 18, I lived in a flophouse in Toronto," he said. "We used to listen to Bert's records all the time … we stayed up all night listening. He only had one record, so we got to know that one real well …"
One record isn't quite enough to be representative of so wide-ranging a career, but it's fair to say that with this debut album, Bert Jansch started as he meant to go on. As it was for Jack Kerouac, the road was both subject and metaphor for Jansch. It's no coincidence then that the debut album begins with a song called Strolling Down the Highway. On the surface, it's as described: sauntering along in the sunshine with hands in pockets. Probing deeper, it's an iron fist in a slightly scruffy glove: a self-composed and quietly virtuosic statement of intent. "I'm gonna get there my way …"
As a note on the 1966 LP jacket put it, “Bert plays his life”. Like contemporaries Roy Harper and Wizz Jones, he was one of those who embodied a troubadour spirit, gathering experience of a wider world by hitting the road: picking potatoes to raise money to travel to London from his native Edinburgh, then travelling on through France, working, playing and busking as he went.
The influence of “world” music had already entered his playing through acquaintance with the Scottish guitarist Davy Graham, but Jansch tried to experience it first hand, at which point the poetic notion ended. Contracting dysentery in Tangiers, he was returned home by train on the orders of the consulate.
When he pitched up again in London, Jansch wasn’t fazed by much. The folk music circuit of the era, as policed by its figurehead Ewan Macoll, could be maddeningly purist and parochial: traditional songs were to be gathered from one’s own locality, and nowhere else. Jansch, whose influences (Big Bill Broonzy, Lightning Hopkins and Charles Mingus) were often American, was more eclectic. His songs were in a recognisably folk idiom, but were generally self-composed, and worse – for the purist – was that they were played on the guitar, then the instrument of the amateur skiffler rather than the academic and high-minded song collector.
“Characters like Bert were lower than low,” Jansch’s collaborator John Renbourn told me a few years ago. “He was coming from a completely different angle from most of those people,” he said. “He was loose – some people responded well to it and others didn’t.”
Heather Wood, a singer in the a capella folk group The Young Tradition found Jansch’s magic to reside not in stagecraft, but in pure charisma. “He’d stumble on stage, drunk as a skunk, mumble his way through some songs, and he was wonderful,” she told me recently. “It was magic.”
Recorded on a guitar borrowed from his pal Les Bridger (a sometime folkie who played piratical roles in West End shows) in the Camden flat of producer Bill Leader, it is hard to see how Bert Jansch wouldn't impress everyone, from the freewheeling hitchhiker to the most hardened folk purist. It bottles Jansch's magic. His attitude and moody flair is present, but so also is a haunted sense of history and tradition in his voice and compositions – a song like I Have No Time sounds strangely ancient and modern, like a medieval Beatles number. Nor is there any trickery: the remaster allows you to hear every concentrated breath.
Herein lies the genius of the record. There were better technicians than Bert Jansch, and there were songwriters no less accomplished (he was on a London scene that played host to Paul Simon, and rather more fleetingly to Bob Dylan), but no one revealed their character and intention in quite the same way. The second track Smokey River, (see also the later Casbah, and the swinging Alice's Wonderland, which betrays Jansch's deep jazz feel) is a stream of consciousness outpouring of pan-global influence, which could have been played more slickly by other players. But to conceive of its deadly modal movements and then sequence them between more romantic compositions was suggestive of stranger currents running beneath Jansch's apparently still waters.
Jansch is cool. He sounds like he is taking it all in his stride, his music contemporary (Finches is a Dylanesque interlude inspired by a Goodge Street folk club), fatalistic (Rambling's Going to be the Death of Me is a classic folk blues, in which a Scottish man just young enough to vote carries off a weighty idiom), and simply classic. Attaining something of the gravity of Needle Of Death is a big ask from a young songwriter, but Jansch pulls it off with a laconic humanity.
He, after all, had seen it happen. In London, he knew a young 12-string guitarist called Buck Polly, and was with him one day in Finch’s (as it was properly spelt) after Polly had an argument with his wife. The next day, he heard that Polly was dead of a heroin overdose. Older songwriters would perhaps have let it lie. It evidences Jansch’s fine qualities as songwriter, guitarist and young human being that he ignores that instinct completely, and creates something that is solemn, meaningful and important.
That balance of talent, seriousness and incaution makes this a classic debut album. The comedian Billy Connolly, a folk musician in the period, recalled the record as the coolest in any collection, its austere cover aspirational to the point that "Glasgow was full of people with no furniture in their houses trying to play Strolling Down The Highway". Most tantalisingly, it suggested that there would be more of this kind of thing to come.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.