Bert Jansch - A Man I'd Rather Be (Part 1)

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:2018-01-24
Bert Jansch - A Man I'd Rather Be (Part 1)
Bert Jansch - A Man I'd Rather Be (Part 1)

The music of Bert Jansch is as close as I’ll probably ever get to touching real magic.

That said, this release, A Man I’d Rather Be (Part 1), contains the first four Bert Jansch albums in a classy “box” with new pictures and notes from the legendary Bill Leader. Those of us with all of the original vinyl copies, the two on one Castle CDs, and, of course, the Sanctuary discs with the really cool photos of the safety copy master tapes, probably need this set, too. 

An ex-girlfriend once asked me after a cheap meal and observing my satchel filled with newly purchased albums, “Exactly how many different versions of a favorite album do you need?” In truth, she was reacting to my exuberance after buying an imported copy of Roy Harper’s HQ on the Harvest label to add to my already existing American Chrysalis version that had a different title and an inferior cover. But I knew then and there we were not destined to be star-crossed lovers and the fault was not in our stars; but, rather, she simply didn’t understand my obsession to these weird plastic things that spun around and produced such beauty and some form of simple truth in my life. Granted, she had a legitimate gripe about the cheap meal, and my obsession to weird plastic things isn’t exactly normal behavior, but that’s beside the point. Ah, what did Shakespeare say, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

So yes, this music is the food of love, and thankfully, Earth Recordings allows it to play on. Recently, I complained about Canada’s city Stratford Upon Avon not knowing about its famous favorite son Richard Manuel, who was The Band’s vocalist. I suggested that their shrine to hometown boy Justin Bieber proved there was something very wrong with the world. Well, that’s still true. But the fact that Earth Recordings is willing to release all these wonderful Bert Jansch records is positive proof that there is still a bit of Beatitude goodness in our dear world.

But for those who have yet to taste the absolute beauty of the first Bert Jansch record, oh my, the very first tune, “Strolling Down the Highway,” in which Bert tells us all he will “get there my way,”quietly compresses his never-changing ethos of his recording career into a single song. It’s funny. The world always changes. But Bert Jansch never really followed suit. Sometimes, he barely owned a guitar. Other times, he just wanted to play darts in a pub and drink too much.

The song “Oh How Your Love Is Strong” is a bit of the magic we are all allowed to touch. “I Have No Time” has a beauty that wavers like webbed gossamer in a troubled wind. And then “Needle of Death” projects pathos and sympathy into a weary world that is fixated on self-destruction. I suppose this is all like a Thomas Hardy novel: it’s very British deep down traditional heart-breaking stuff that still pleads for some sort of redemption with a burial plot in the depth of dirt at an unmarked crossroad grave.

By the way, Bert Jansch’s guitar playing has influenced Jimmy Page, Donovan, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Al Stewart, Johnny Marr, Riley Walker, and just about everybody else. And yeah, Neil Young did say, “As much of a great guitar player as Jimi Hendrix was, Jansch is the same thing for the acoustic guitar.”

His second album It Don’t Bother Me is equally brilliant. The title track states his credo: Bert Jansch, although aware of his immense talent, is existentially unaffected by the world. Nothing bothered him. On a much later record, When the Circus Comes to Town, he sings “Walk Quietly By.” Now, I must admit to being wrong about the song’s intent as Colin Harper in his great book Dazzling Stranger Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival states the song “observed the breakdown for the mentally ill.” But really, its lyric states, “Walk quietly by, he wouldn’t bother you/ He’s a busy man, he’s got things to do/All day long he’s happy in his world/Picking up the leaves/Cleaning up his own back yard.” In those words, I see Bert himself “happy” to simply take care of his own autumnal business.

And his music bears witness to this ethos. This second album has the song “Anti-Apartheid” hidden in its depth. Peter Hammill would write “A Motor-Bike in Afrika,” and Peter Gabriel would hit worldwide moral outrage with “Biko.” But Bert may be the first British musician to sing “the good fight.” And he did it in his own quiet way and in his own quiet time, way before others sang, “The eyes of the world are watching now.”

And by the way (again), “My Lover,” with John Renbourn on lead guitar, is an early (1965) foray into an Eastern vibe. Others would follow suit.

My friend, Kilda Defnut (who likes English Romantic poetry a lot more than most people), claims this collection is Exhibit A for the relevance of John Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in which the youth is always in “mad pursuit”; he and the maiden (and all of nature) are “wild” with “ecstasy.” And this music, “unravished” by time, can still be “Forever warm and still be enjoyed, forever panting, and forever young.”

Well, I don’t know about that, but the third album, Jack Orion, is a masterpiece in which Bert Jansch stretches the American blues-based folk singer template into an orbit, as Martin Carthy stated, “just so outrageous and different, so unlike anything else that anybody else had ever played—and the title track was nine minutes long!” This was British traditional music resurrected from the family freehold vaults and broken gravestones, suddenly made relevant and downright interesting, interesting enough for a young Jimmy Page to become “absolutely obsessed” with Bert Jansch and eventually include a similar arrangement of “Blackwaterside” on Zeppelin’s debut record. The songs, except an instrumental version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” are credited as Trad. Arr. Jansch. And there’s a rare Bert played banjo on the opening “The Waggoner’s Lad.”

It’s also interesting to note Jack Orion includes more guitar work of John Renbourn in their pre-Pentangling days.

And that fusion of folk-jazz-blues and whatever continued with Bert and John, an album cut loosely in an afternoon. Coming after the monumental Jack Orion, this album is often overlooked. It’s a short record of mostly guitar duets. But, of course, these are Bert Jansch and John Renbourn duets, so who’s complaining? There is an arrangement of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” And, once again, almost hidden in the depth of this instrumental guitar work, there are two vocal numbers, Anne Brigg’s “The Time Has Come” and “Soho,” the latter being a quiet jewel which is deep and rich—just like the “blood red wine” of its lyric.  

So, the world’s a much better place with this release by Earth Recordings. The individual records are still available, but here are these first four albums, beautifully packaged in conjunction with the Bert Jansch estate. Although this music is complex in its creation and execution, it somehow simplified our world and our lives. And, yes, Bert Jansch played on to create many more wonderful records, which portrayed age, illness, and personal troubles, warts and all. But his youth is captured here—just like that picture of pursuit, forever frozen—on that Grecian Urn that has carried the caption through so many ages that, indeed, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And the early music of Bert Jansch is just that: it creates a place in which we are free to quietly “pick up the leaves” in our own backyard and keep busy in a secluded world, a world that is filled with both truth and beauty, which are the combustible elements of a tangible, and a very real, and ultimately, a very touchable magic.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Bill - A great story and great review of an artist that clearly means the world to you. That is very cool! I'm not too familiar with Jansch but listened to a few tracks (I know plenty of the songs) and it instantly reminded me of the warm finger picking of Mississippi John Hurt from his 1920s...

  • In reply to Mark Moody
    Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Avalon recordings. I don't know if you have ever gone down the Yazoo or Document country blues rathole before, but if you love expertly or emotionally played acoustic guitar they are amazing as well. I spent a year listening to nothing but. Great writing on your part too!

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