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How Guitar God Bert Jansch Got Burned

The guitarist Bert Jansch influenced many a musician but, like many artists before him, never got his due — especially in the money department.  He had an impact on Paul Simon, Donovan, Neil Young, and Jimmy Page. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr gushed, “He innovated acoustic music in the same way that Jimi Hendrix innovated electric music.” Neil Young concurred, stating Jansch was “Jimi Hendrix on the acoustic guitar.”  But like Hendrix, Jansch had some bad habits, in his case, alcohol.

In 1987, Jansch’s pancreas inflamed so badly that he couldn’t stand up.  He recalled, “It was like being sick without being sick.” He was rushed to a hospital where a doctor told him he almost died and demanded that he stop drinking.  In a 2007 interview he gave to a blog called Alternatives to Valium, Bert said: “I had this nurse who was a fan, who came in and sat on the bed. She tried to give me reasons why I should give up drinking.”

The Scotsman may have been drinking so heavily due to the many times he was fleeced by fellow guitarists.  Jimmy Page borrowed the melody of Jansch’s “Blackwaterside” and turned it into “Black Mountain Side.”  Page then claimed he wrote the song that appeared on Zeppelin’s debut album.

Once unaware of Page’s plagiarizing, Bert remembered, “One day I was in the States and somebody said have you heard this track? Page did the same thing with [guitarist] Davey [Graham]. ‘White Summer’ [a tune from the Yardbirds’ last album, Little Games] is lifted from Davey’s arrangement of “She Moved Thro’ The Fair.”

Transatlantic, Jansch’s record company, launched a lawsuit against the guitarist but didn’t have enough money to combat Page’s team of lawyers.  When Jansch later crossed paths with Page, Bert gibed, “He runs away. He could be friendlier.”

Neil Young listed Jansch as an influence on the back of the 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again. He admitted borrowing liberally from Bert, telling his biographer: “I always feel bad I stole the melody [to ‘Ambulance Blues’] from Bert Jansch. You ever heard that song ‘Needle of Death?’ I loved that melody. I didn’t realize ‘Ambulance Blues’ starts exactly the same. I knew that it sounded like something that he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realized I copped his thing. I felt really bad about that. I’ll never play guitar as good as this guy. Never.”

Donovan found out that Bert could play the field even better than he could play guitar.  Unfortunately, Bert believed that Donovan should have stuck to making hits instead of hitting on his then-girlfriend, singer Beverly Kutner.  Donovan stated in a 2011 interview with Mojo magazine: “I was part of the triangle, although not in the way Bert thought I was. I wrote [1967’s] ‘Bert’s Blues’ because I felt bad, as I loved Bert.”  

The next year, Beverly got into the name-checking game herself by appearing on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Faking It” song and cheerily saying Donovan’s last name: “Good morning, Mr. Leitch. Have you had a busy day?”

Being a musicians’ musician never translated into popularity for Bert or his band, Pentangle; their blend of jazz, folk, blues, and classical music never achieved mass appeal. The record-buying public adored songs and groups featuring dueling electric guitars (i.e, the Stones) behind a male lead singer. Two acoustic guitarists, Bert and John Renbourn, backing the fabulous Jacqui McShee never caught the ears of millions, a fact the easy-going-to-a-fault Bert shrugged off.

His attitude about suing Jimmy Page is like the Zeppelin song, “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do?”  Bert noted: “I’m quite happy. I don’t have to borrow guitars anymore. What am I going to do with three Rolls-Royces?”

Jansch never begrudged the vast success of his peers which included Paul Simon.  In the early ‘60’s, the pair played at London folk clubs. Bert recalled in 2011: “We used to do gigs together, around London. He has moved on, you might say. I’ve not heard from him since.”  But Bert heard when Simon recorded “Anji” which was an instrumental piece at the conclusion of side one on Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence album.  Simon thought it was Bert’s song and the writing credit initially went to him but was later changed to folkie guitar hero Davey Graham who Jansch idolized.

On a 2011 appearance on NPR’s World Café, Paul Simon fondly recalled Bert who had recently died that year at the age of 67. “He had a real interesting way of pulling of the strings and slapping and pushing of his guitar and his persona was a little bit wild. I know he had severe arthritis and he had a lot of issues with alcohol but he was a beloved guy.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Bert Jansch, 2006 (Chris Barber from Dartford, England via Wikimedia Commons)

Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

1 comment on “How Guitar God Bert Jansch Got Burned

  1. Thanks for this piece, Mark.

    One of his less-well-known solo albums, “L.A. Turnaround,” was produced by (then-ex-Monkee) Michael Nesmith in 1974. Good album, good players on it.

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