A Year After Death, Revisiting Jansch's 'Heartbreak'

Nov 24, 2012
Originally published on November 24, 2012 6:26 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time, now, for music.


LYDEN: The Scottish guitarist and singer Bert Jansch left behind an enduring legacy when he died a year ago, at the age of 67. A new reissue shines the spotlight on Jansch at mid-career, both in the studio and on stage. Joining us to talk about the album "Heartbreak" is NPR's Arts Desk editor, Tom Cole. Hi, Tom. Thanks for coming in.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Thanks for asking.

LYDEN: So tell us a little bit about Bert Jansch - before we get to this new reissue.

COLE: He was born in Glasgow, just a couple of years before World War II ended; grew up in Edinburgh really, really poor - so poor, in fact, that he had to make his own guitars, out of scraps of wood. And he was pretty much self-taught. He actually got a couple of lessons from the sister of another legendary British guitarist, a guy named Davy Graham.

In fact, one of Jansch's best-known instrumentals is a Davy Graham tune called "Angie," that Paul Simon later went on to record. Simon was living in London at the time, and got to know Jansch and heard his version of it. And it's one of those tunes that pretty much every aspiring finger-style guitar player has to learn.

LYDEN: Let's just hear a little of this.


LYDEN: So London's a real hotbed, then; a lot of guitarists, a lot of musicians coming down, mixing, playing these tiny clubs - a room or two over a pub. What made Bert Jansch stand out in that atmosphere?

COLE: Well, what was remarkable about him is so many of the musicians back then were very much influenced by American blues. You can hear that in "Angie," a little bit. But Jansch - like Davy Graham - was really sort of reaching beyond that. I mean, Jansch got to meet people like Browning McGee, and watch them and learn from them. But back then, Jansch and Graham; and some others, like John Renbourn; were looking to what we call now world music - music from India, from North Africa - and to jazz. And he sort of brought all of that together with his colleague John Renbourn, in a group that they had together, formed around - about 1967; called Pentangle.

LYDEN: Well, and Pentangle - a lot of us remember, from the time, was just iconic.

COLE: Totally. And they just had this wonderful vocalist named Jaqui McShee, who had this bell-like soprano that was fabulous.

LYDEN: She was a gift.


PENTANGLE: (Singing) Sweet apples, sweet oranges, sweet apples, sweet oranges. Fresh, fresh for sale for you all today. Come and buy them sweet apples....

LYDEN: So this is so lovely, Tom. You hear them together. What's this cut called?

COLE: It's called "Market Song."

LYDEN: "Market Song." Let's listen now, Tom, to Jansch in the studio about a decade later, from the new reissue of his album "Heartbreak."


BERT JANSCH: (Singing) One morning fair, I took the air down by blackwater side. 'Twas gazing all all around me, the Irish lad I spied.

LYDEN: Tell us the story of the Chelew Brothers, in this original recording.

COLE: They were two Southern Californians. They'd been fans of Bert Jansch since they were teenagers - 15, 16 - and...

LYDEN: This is Rick and John Chelew.

COLE: Right, who apparently stayed in touch with, you know, Bert Jansch. They met him when he was touring California with Pentangle. And so in 1981, they decided they were going to produce a record. They'd never produced, you know, anything before. And they borrowed the money from their mom, to pull the whole thing off. They got a studio in Silver Lake; got some very good musicians, including Albert Lee - remarkable, remarkable guitar player; electric guitar player, primarily.

And the thing is, he was an alcoholic. You know, there's no other way to say it more politely. And they had to make him promise to drink only beer, during the afternoon sessions. And they wound up getting a good performance out of him. You know, his voice is strong; his guitar playing is strong.

And they also - while he was there, in California - sprung to get some of his solo concert performances recorded. And this is the - sort of neat thing about this reissue. One disc is the reissue of the original album "Heartbreak," and the second disc is previously unreleased performance at - kind of a legendary space in Santa Monica, called McCabe's Guitar Shop.


JANSCH: (Singing) The winter has passed, and the summer's come at last. The small birds are singing in the trees. Oh, their little hearts are blessed; oh, but mine can know no rest for my true love is far away from me.

LYDEN: So Tom, we're listening to Bert Jansch from 1981. What happened to him after that?

COLE: Well, he had his ups and downs - you know, again, in large part because of his alcohol. He wound up being hospitalized, by the end of the 1980s; and then made a comeback from that, recording several critically acclaimed albums. People said he sounded better than ever, almost. Then about six, seven years ago, he had heart surgery and made another comeback; recording an album called "The Black Swan," with Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart, among others - and really, sort of got recognition from a younger generation; and finished up connecting with people once again, you know, after a career of almost half a century.

LYDEN: So that's Bert Jansch, the new reissue of the 1981 recording of "Heartbreak." Tom Cole is an editor for NPR's Arts Desk. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLE: You're welcome.


JANSCH: (Singing) You who are in love, and cannot it remove. I pity the pain you do endure, for experience lets me know that your hearts are full of woe.

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. I'm Jacki Lyden. Thanks for listening, and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.