Bert Jansch’s Just A Simple Soul

cover artBert Jansch was one of the most iconic and influential folk musicians to come out of the U.K. in the 1960s. It’s shocking that it’s taken until now for the release of a career retrospective, but very welcome indeed is this two-CD set from Sanctuary and BMG. My only complaint, in fact, is that it should be bigger: three discs, or maybe four including some rarities and his contributions to other musicians’ recordings. The man after all had 23 studio albums under his own name covering nearly 50 years, plus several live sets as well as his work with Pentangle, the seminal folk-rock-jazz fusion group. The list of musicians he inspired includes Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, Johnny Marr, Laura Marling, Fleet Foxes and Neil Young last but not least.

This two-disc set on CD or LP, named for the closing track on his 1998 album Toy Balloon, ­is indeed the first collection that covers his entire solo career, from his iconic 1965 self-titled debut through his final studio album, 2006’s Black Swan.  It was compiled by the Jansch estate and Bernard Butler, a late collaborator who wrote a nice essay in the liner notes. This collection is presented chronologically, the first disc top-heavy with material from his prolific period in the ’60s, when he released six albums from 1965 to ’69.

As with so many young folkies in the U.K. in the early ’60s, the young Scotsman was inspired by acoustic American blues musicians like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Bill Broonzy, et al, and it shows strongly in his debut album. That album and this collection open with his jaunty blues “Strolling Down The Highway,” which remained one of his signature pieces for the rest of his life. The instrumental “Angie” likewise became a standard, showcasing his unique, percussive and flighty fingerpicking style, and this tune is one of those that fingerpickers all try to learn to establish their cred.

Rounding out the selections from Bert Jansch, aka “The Blue Album” is his harrowing “Needle Of Death,” inspired by the overdose death of a friend. It’s a song that still packs an emotional punch, delivered by a Jansch who sounds like the sad and vulnerable young man he was at the time.

The title track from his second album It Don’t Bother Me (also 1965) is a defiant statement of purpose, just Bert and his guitar. “A Man I’d Rather Be” showcases his wry sense of humor in a very traditional vein. From his third Jack Orion, which featured John Renbourn on guitar, we get the instrumental “The Waggoner’s Lad” with Bert on tenor banjo and the traditional “Black Water Side” which he learned from Anne Briggs. This one was in 1966, the same year as Jansch and Renbourn’s duo album laid the foundation for Pentangle.

Jack Orion also included a short instrumental version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger. On 1973’s Moonshine, my favorite Jansch album and his only one on a major American label (Reprise), he played a full version of the song in a two-part round duet with Mary Hopkin. That song finishes this first disc, following the lovely, baroque, sobering title track from that album. I skipped a bunch – there are 19 songs on this disc including the bluesy “Come Back Baby,” the sad ballad of female exploitation “Rosemary Lane,” the trad folk song “Reynardine” and the eco-anthem “Poison.” All worthy of inclusion here.

The second disc starts with material from some of the more controversial albums in Jansch’s career.

He cut much of 1974’s post-Pentangle L.A. Turnaround in California with Michael Nesmith producing, and it doesn’t sound anything at all like his earlier work. Nesmith’s bandmate the great Red Rhodes plays pedal steel on “Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning,” which opens Disc 2, and the album also featured Beatles companion Klaus Voorman on bass guitar and prolific sessionman Jesse Ed Davis on guitars. At the time I’m sure it seemed very left-field, and the first few times I listened to this track I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But the more I listen, the more I think it would fit in perfectly with, say, The Queen of Hearts, the superb 2017 disc by Offa Rex. So maybe he was just ahead of his time.

This collection also features the superb instrumental “Chambertin” from L.A. Turnaround, but it was recorded in Sussex before the California sessions. “The Blacksmith,” from the California sessions, is a Doc Watson tune with Jansch lyrics and a jazz-fusion arrangement complete with great Fender Rhodes electric piano. Byron Berline, who at the time I think was married to Emmylou Harris, played fiddle on the album, but not on any of the three tracks featured here. Maybe “Baby Blue” and its steel drums from the next album, Santa Barbara Honeymoon will similarly grow on me, but I’m doubtful. I suspect they picked the best song off this album and it’s pretty slight, and that steel drum makes it sound like a Jimmy Buffet song that wandered off and got drunk on scotch.

Fortunately, he returned dramatically to form with 1979’s Avocet, an all-instrumental album whose tunes are all titled for birds – and one of my treasured possessions. Martin Jenkins plays various instruments and Pentangle bandmate Danny Thompson plays upright bass. It’s represented by “Kittiwake.” There were ups and downs for the next 20-some years, but with a strong period starting in ’95 with When The Circus Comes To Town – represented by the title track and “Morning Brings Peace of Mind.”

Just A Simple Soul finishes strongly with “Just A Simple Soul” and the title track from Toy Balloon in 1998, and the title tracks from his first two releases in this century, Crimson Moon and Edge Of A Dream; and the title track and the biting “High Days” from The Black Swan. I can’t even type “On The Edge Of A Dream” without getting that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day, it’s that catchy and good. Rock baby, rock.

Would that Bert Jansch were still with us, but it’s grand to see his work receiving the high-quality re-release treatment. Between 2017’s massive reissue of his overlooked releases from the 1990s and 2000s and this two-disc career retrospective, Bert Jansch’s music lives on.

(Sanctuary/BMG, 2018)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.