Strolling Down the Highway
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Strolling Down the Highway

A romantic whose voyage of discovery led him to London in the early 1960s, Bert Jansch developed a unique, innovative style of guitar playing that influenced icons such as Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Johnny Marr. This film presents the folk icon live on April 22, 2006 at Sheffield’s Memorial Hall.

An Electrifying Acoustic Virtuoso

4 Min Read

Bert Jansch, one of the U.K.’s most vaunted guitar players, hardly ever felt the need to plug in. Though most six-string masters who rose in the classic-rock era blasted their licks and riffs through vast banks of amplifiers while they pranced around the stage, Jansch sat stone still on a stool while he spun frills and arpeggios of acoustic gold. His fingerings were fine and his chords clean, all of them honed to bring the listener closer to the core of the melody and the meaning of the song. 

Small wonder that guitar gods from Jimmy Page to Neil Young not only admired Jansch’s work but also nicked bits of it for their own recordings. Page used Jansch’s arrangement for the traditional piece “Blackwaterside” as the template for the instrumental track he recorded with Led Zeppelin on its debut under the title “Black Mountain Side.” Only the cost of battling Page’s powerful attorneys kept Jansch from taking legal action. Three years later, Neil Young took a more generalized kind of inspiration from Jansch’s 1965 song “Needle of Death” to create his own anti-heroin tale, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” in 1972. 

You can hear a sterling example of what attracted so many musicians and listeners to Jansch’s work in “Strolling Down the Highway,” a concert film shot at Sheffield Memorial Hall in 2006. The repertoire in this 90-minute show brackets Jansch’s prolific career, opening with two songs he cut in the year he began recording, 1965, while also including toward the close a piece (“Hey Pretty Girl”) from the final solo album he recorded in 2006, “The Black Swan.” Five years later, at 67, the guitarist died of lung cancer. 

The Sheffield show features just one piece (the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair”)  Jansch recorded with Pentangle, the groundbreaking band he helped form in 1967. One of the U.K.’s most important and innovative folk outfits, Pentangle included that song on a live recording from 1986. But the group’s greatest era took place in its first four years, between 1967 and 1971, when it featured no fewer than three master players — Jansch, as well as the equally erudite guitarist John Renbourn and the highly melodic bassist Danny Thompson. Rounded out by silken-voiced singer Jacqui McShee and stalwart drummer Terry Cox, Pentangle elaborated on Celtic music with the daring solos of psychedelic rock and jazz. 

Though Jansch was Scottish, the music he performs draws on traditional styles from around the U.K. and Ireland.

By contrast, Jansch’s performance in “Strolling Down the Highway” features him alone. That’s right in keeping with the sound that first established him on mid-‘60s albums like his self-titled debut and its follow-up, “It Don’t Bother Me.” In performing the latter’s title track — about a man immune to the slanders of the world, someone focused instead on the inner life — the singer mirrors the searching loner we see onstage. Though Jansch was Scottish, the music he performs draws on traditional styles from around the U.K. and Ireland. 

He also absorbed the sound of American blues, evidenced by songs like his original piece “Comeback Baby” or “Pockets Empty.” The genre becomes a metaphor in his cover of “Blues Run the Game,” by the late American songwriter Jackson C. Frank. A song of exquisite woe, it has been covered by everyone from U.K. folkies Sandy Denny and Nick Drake to Americans Simon and Garfunkel and Counting Crows. 

Hewing to the folk tradition, Jansch offers long spoken intros to most of the songs, making frequent reference to his early meetings with those who influenced him, including Davey Graham, whom he came upon when he was 15, and Anne Briggs, who taught him some of the traditional pieces he performs. They include “Rosemary Lane,” which Jansch used as the title track to a solo album he released in 1971, and the aforementioned “Black Water Side,” which he underpins with the dark, descending chords that rock fans will recognize from Led Zeppelin’s heavier appropriation. 

During the show, Jansch references other folk-rock peers, including Fairport Convention via his version of a traditional song of supernatural eroticism the band cut in 1969, “Reynardine.” He also alludes to the Incredible String Band by interpreting its philosophical ode, “October Song.” Still, it’s an original number, “Poison,” that best demonstrates Jansch’s inventive melding of Celtic and blues sources. Likewise, his instrumental “Down Under” offers the purest display of his thickly woven fingerings and brisk picking style, the very elaborations that made his acoustic work so electrifying.

 

Jim Farber has been writing about music since the Ramones were new. After serving as chief music critic for the New York Daily News for 25 years, he began to contribute to The New York Times, Guardian, Mojo and many other publications. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, Farber is also an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of New York University.

Jim Farber has been writing about music since the Ramones were new. After serving as chief music critic for the New York Daily News for 25 years, he began to contribute to The New York Times, Guardian, Mojo and many other publications. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, Farber is also an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of New York University.

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