Bert Jansch’s Moonshine

The year 1973 was not all that good a year for music, as far as I was concerned. There were a few bright lights, but mostly, the vibrant rock music of the late ’60s was morphing into bloated arena rock or flaccid singer-songwriter folk. Punk hadn’t yet breathed new life into the music scene, and it seemed as though most pop musicians were floundering around for some new direction or endlessly reiterating the same tired formulas.

It was the year I graduated from high school and went off to university, and music was very important to me. One of the first things I did when I arrived at university that fall was to seek out some new exotic music. I got some Mahavishnu Orchestra, along with some budget classical recordings — French Renaissance dances, classical and Spanish guitar — some Morton Subotnick synthesizer experiments, and Bert Jansch’s Moonshine. That fall, which was a dank and rainy one, I took my first college-level Shakespeare course, and Jansch’s album was the perfect accompaniment to late-night readings of The Bard.

It remains my favorite English folk-rock album. Let me count the ways…

First and foremost are the songs. It starts subtly with a pensive arrangement of the traditional “Yarrow,” about a “plowboy lad” who fights for a Lady’s hand, with her encouragement. After that five-minute mini-epic, “Brought With the Rain,” another traditional song, is short but mysterious, a lyrical meditation on metaphors of life and death.

In the third spot is what I consider the masterpiece, Bert’s arrangement of Dave Goulder’s lovely “The January Man.” Accompanied only by his own guitar and a harp, Jansch sensitively sings this ode to the cyclical nature of life and death, from the titular character, who “walks the road in woolen cloak and boots of leather,” to the December Man, who “looks through the snow / to let eleven brothers know they’re all a little older...”

Finishing the first side of the vinyl album is Jansch’s “Night Time Blues,” a seven-minute bluesy rocker in which the narrator seeks in vain for the source of the sound of somebody crying in the night and in the process paints a vivid word-picture of life in the English countryside: “It’s not the far cry of the seagull / following the trawlermen home / It’s not the bold shout of the miners / Scraping their shins on the stone / It’s not the rich banker from London / A-wheeling and dealing all day / It’s not the high priest and his sermon / Showing his sinners the way…

The title track opens side two, Jansch’s eerie and evocative ballad about a Medieval gentleman languishing in jail after being captured in a battle that he was pressed into by his own Lord. ” ‘Twas a cruel and wicked master / Stole my freedom and charged me / To fight for him and win him victory / But now here am I in a damp and dreary cell / And all I know of time is the church bell.”

Next up is a surprising arrangement of Ewan MacColl’s sturdy love song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Written in 1962, it became a big hit in a languid arrangement by Roberta Flack in 1972. Here, Jansch does it as an uptempo round-like duet, with young Mary Hopkin echoing him on the lines of each verse. Hopkin had one hit single several years before, the unlikely “Those Were The Days, My Friend” on The Beatles’ Apple label. At the time this album was recorded, Mary was married to the hotshot producer and musician Tony Visconti, who is also all over this album — but that’s jumping ahead to the personnel.

Next up are two more traditional songs with excellent Jansch arrangements. “Rambleaway” is the tale of a young rake and the unfortunate miss who is his one-night stand at the Birmingham Fair; and “Twa Corbies.” This is one of dozens of versions of this gleefully gruesome tale of two crows arguing over the choice bits of a new-slain knight; in this version, Jansch affects to sing it with Chaucerian (pre-great vowel change) pronounciation, which makes it all the more memorable. And the album ends on a strong note, with the sturdy bluesy rocker “Oh My Father,” a Jansch-penned protest song contrasting the misery of the poor with the selfish ways of the rich. This was the A-side of the single off the album, which had “First Time Ever” on the flip side. Not very often these days do you find a single that’s the final track on the album!

Here’s a live version of “Oh My Father” from 2012:

Another key factor that elevates this record to classic status is Jansch himself. He has a vocal style that is distinctive, heavily accented and very nasal. And of course his percussive guitar playing is even more distinctive and was highly influential on artists from Nick Drake to Jimmy Page to Neil Young.

Finally, the musicians and others involved in making the album are all top-notch. the aforementioned Tony Visconti (who produced the likes of Badfinger, T. Rex, Bowie, Moody Blues, Dandy Warhols, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Finn Brothers) plays electric bass, tubular bells (the church bells on the title track), recorder and more, and arranged some of the more effective instrumental parts of the album — a four-piece recorder consort on “Yarrow,” the harp part on “January Man” and the lovely instrumental outro of flute, clarinet, cello and guitar on “Moonshine.” Pentangle’s Danny Thompson was overall producer, and played double bass on several tracks. Ali Bain plays fiddle on “Night Time Blues,” “First Time Ever” and “Rambleaway,” and Dave Mattacks is one of several drummers. A virtual who’s who of English folk-rock.

I still have my vinyl copy of Moonshine, although years of playing it on inexpensive turntables did no good for the condition of its grooves. I was pleased to find a copy on CD on my first trip to New York’s Greenwich Village in 2002, and many’s the time on a cold, foggy winter’s eve that I’ve filled myself a tumbler of some stout seasonal ale and sat by the fire, listening to this timeless album. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, it’s just about time for another round…

(Reprise, 1973; Castle, 1995)

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.