SUSSEX SOUNDS: John Renbourn unveils the fast and fantastic life of folk

Pentangle with John Renbourn
Pentangle with John Renbourn
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Folk legend John Renbourn talks to The County Times in PART TWO of his revealing interview

The ‘60s may have been swinging in some trendy hubs of London, but more intriguingly were the creative mixers that swung to a different beat in the smoky dens of the city, places you would find the likes of John Renbourn.

Speaking to John from the County Times office, he reminisces about his first real encounter with fellow folk artist Bert Jansch.

Frequenting a popular night spot in Soho, John stumbled in with Dorris Henderson, an African-American folk singer who he was collaborating with at the time, and encountered a young Bert Jansch.

He had caught the buzz of Bert from local venues and admired his guitar skills at a gig, describing it like ‘nothing he had ever seen’.

“We all wound up back at some place afterwards just trying to find some dope to smoke and basically I never left,” says John, candidly, from his home on the Scottish Borders.

“Me and Bert wound up drifting around from place to place together, because we hit it off playing guitars.”

John was soon to release his first eponymous album with a small independent record label, Transatlantic.

“For my first record, we just met some guys and fooled around; Bert was there and we were all drunk. They sold the tapes to Transatlantic and it became a record of mine with my picture on the cover - it just happened - it was never planned.”

Transatlantic was founded by Nat Joseph in 1961, which went on to represent the likes of The Dubliners, Sheila Hancock and Annie Ross.

“Nat was a little, very bright, Jewish guy and he was great company. I really liked him, he was very irreverent, and he liked the idea of being a British mogul, which he wasn’t. He was notorious for one phrase, which was ‘far too expensive’.

“It was such a shoe-string production place, but it was nice, you felt right at home there.”

At the time, John had fled home, hitchhiked the length and breadth of the UK, and made his money working in kitchens, before settling in London.

“I was trying to play a bit and not getting anywhere because nobody wanted me in the folk clubs, so when Nat took that record of mine, it really helped me in life, so I was very, very grateful to him.”

John’s career blossomed under Transatlantic - with his debut in ‘65, his follow up album ‘Another Monday’ in ‘67, and the Medieval-inspired ‘Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng and ye Grene Knyghte’ in ‘68, which featured soon to be Pentangle band mate Terry Cox on percussion.

Querying the latter album, I try to say the title but foolishly muddle my words, and John kindly fills in the gaps.

“I just recorded anything. Originally I didn’t have any direction and all I ever played was stuff that I‘d heard other people playing, which I assumed was what people needed - bluesy, anglo-fied verses of American songs.

“Since I could already read and write music and had an academic background, I threw in some things that sounded a lot different. Nat didn’t exercise any control over what you recorded, so those pieces like ‘Sir John A lot...’ stood out from the rest as being a bit different from the folky-blues things, and it was a direction that felt much more me.”

Collaborating with other budding musicians like Mac MacLeod, Julie Felix, Dorris Henderson and Bert (resulting in their baroque-folk album ‘Bert and John’), John was eventually led to blues star Alexis Korner and his band.

“Alexis had the best blues band in town , so I got to know Terry Cox and Danny Thompson, the drum and bass player. They were fantastic and the idea of extending the kind of stuff that I was doing with Bert was something I put to them and they were okay about it.

“Jacqui McShee was singing in Paris with a friend of mine - she was versatile and enthusiastic, so I put them all together.”

Jamming, sharing ideas, improvising, and going off on ‘tangents’, as John puts it, the group just let the music take its natural course, running through their fingers and vocal chords, like a surge of creative juices.

“Just at that time, the so-called underground was happening in America and bands like the Grateful Dead were pretty much doing the same thing.

“We were what the folk gurus hated, but nevertheless we became a kind of folk group.”

Melding their love of blues, jazz, folk and contemporary, I remind John that despite the opposition from ‘true’ root folk fans, Pentangle went on to become a huge success in the UK and across the borders.

“I think that you’ll find despite folk purists not liking you is probably quite a good remedy for success.”

Signed to a branch of Warner Brothers, the band flew to America where they played big venues like Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival, just as the moon landing was taking place in ‘69.

“From potato peeling to staying in one of the most wonderful hotels in New York on an expensive campaign by Warner Brothers was a change (laughs).”

Initially, the band embraced their giant leap into touring with the big leagues, but John refers to those days as something too surreal to take seriously.

“We were so amazed by the whole thing it was like funny really, a joke. Mock-English airs and graces were wondering around pretending we were Lord Fauntleroy.”

But relentless travelling and performances to adoring crowds began to take its toll on John and the others, and that exciting spark was short-lived.

“That touring lifestyle is very gruelling and it didn’t take long for everyone to be absolutely wrecked.”

I ask John what lessons has he taken away from that whirlwind of an experience.

“Well, the lessons that everyone learns on their own is that it’s easy to be ripped off, its easy to keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working like a machine, and the biggest lesson you learn is that is doesn’t do anything for your health and anything for the music.

“Everyone thinks you’re going on holiday, having a wonderful time and expressing yourself, but there’s more hours a musician puts in, more travelling, more everything than anybody does in any other kind of job that I can think of.”

Following several albums, Pentangle separated ways and John returned to touring solo in the UK and throughout Europe, where he continued to write music, release albums and collaborate with other artists, like guitarist Stefan Grossman, and even a brief stint with another band Ship of Fools that he formed for a one-off gig in New York.

Now, in more recent years, John has taken a backseat to the fast-moving spotlight of fame and focuses on composing scores for theatre and film (including Driving Lessons starring Julie Walters), and teaching guitar in a series of fun workshops that are hosted in beautiful locations across the globe, like the Pyrenees, Andalcia and southern Crete.

“People often come because they want to learn specific things, but the classes I do often go off on tangents and that’s the fun of it,” he says.

Releasing his last album, a classical-inspired piece, ‘Palermo Snow’ in 2011, I ask John what is next on the cards for his music.

“The latest news is that Mac MacLeod, my old buddy, found some tapes of us playing in the early ‘60s. So I took the tapes into a recording studio. It’s very fragile, and there’s some funny stuff on it, some real ancient’60s stuff.

“There’s also other tapes that have come to light of me and Beverley Martyn, who married John Martyn, and a lot of my solo things.”

John is also hoping to have a book of his drawings and letters published.

Looking back at the age of 69, John most fondly remembers his days mixing with the greats of American blues.

“What stands out for me was meeting the musicians I adore myself. I can’t believe how fantastic it was. One of my first gigs was with Jesse Fuller, the 12 string guy, I remember every second of it. Years later I met Doc Watson and that was just out of this world. I also met T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker.”

What the modest folk-extraordinaire does not realise is his influence in the industry has inspired leagues of now famous musicians, and speaking with John over the phone was, in his own words, ‘out of this world’ for me.

If you are interested in learning more about John’s workshops, visit www.johnrenbourn.co.uk