Tag Archives: Nottamun Town

Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.

Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

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Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings