At the risk of making my website seem like a condolence book I felt I must write about my friend John Renbourn who died suddenly two days ago.
Coming as it did within days of my attendance at my great friend Jim McCann’s funeral in Ireland, it is as if another root of the musical tree has been severed and I am left swaying in the wind of sadness that has overtaken me.
John was in the vanguard of what professor Mike Grenfell has called the “transatlantic movement” This refers to both the record label that bravely put out the recordings of the likes of John, Bert Jansch, yours truly and all those who took the love of blues and American music in a new direction. By filtering it through the amazing British folk influences, they evolved a delicate interpretation of finger style which eventually found its way back to the USA to influence the likes of Paul Simon and others. In John’s case it lead him into neo classicism whilst always retaining an earthy affection for his folk blues roots.
John and I became acquainted in the early sixties I think, and by the middle of 1965 John told me of his association with Bert Jansch and gently pushed me towards the northern folk clubs. Through his contact with Win White at the Highcliff Hotel in Sheffield, this opened the doors for me to the amazingly vibrant northern folk scene.
John’s first album followed Bert’s on the Transatlantic label and the evocative sleeve picture of him nonchalantly leaning on a gate post with his old Scarth guitar became something of an iconic snap.
That old Scarth guitar was a bit of a nightmare to play but it looked the part. The neck had shifted slightly forward and John in the true folk manner had pushed it back by layers of ice lolly sticks pushed under the overhanging high fret board that was set like that of a jazz guitar.
It was important to look the part, posing outside a junk yard with a cigarette dangling from the lip. A pose replicated dozens of times thereafter. My own favourite album of John’s came next, where he used his beautiful sounding Gibson J45 to great effect on “Lady Nothinge” a tune which remains one of my favourite compositions of John’s.
John was quite simply one of the funniest guys I have ever worked with. His dry sense of humour and spark sharp wit enlivened every meeting and on a particularly hard American tour with the legendary Stephan Grossman, he helped keep me sane. He was a very nervous flier and we whiled away our plane journeys across the States by playing backgammon with magnetic counters. It helped calm John’s nerves, which helped calm mine. With the exception of an aborted landing in Portland when John’s nervous reaction to seeing pine tree tops suddenly emerge through the fog, he flipped the board scattering magnetic counters on to fellow passengers. We circled for 20 minutes and made a safe landing eventually. Once the tour was over I never played another game.
John and Bert Jansch made a very important instrumental album together before they formed Pentangle, and their careers and adventures would best be told by others. John paid several visits to my home over the years and I finally got him into the recording studio in the 1980’s to lay down two songs with me which appear on “The Journey
“BLUES RUN THE GAME and “A LEAF MUST FALL”
I wrote to him after the loss of one of his sons to extend my condolences and most recently was lucky enough to catch him performing with our mutual hero Wizz Jones at the Half Moon in Putney. Indeed he was still on tour with Wizz when he died.
Talking of Wizz on stage, John said that Wizz “was the reason that he had not ever got a “proper job!”
In some ways tracing John’s career is to take the journey that the “transatlantic movement” has made. From the love of earthy blues and the delights of accoustic guitar played by the old black American masters, to the beginning of instrumental writing. In John’s case, this also encompassed learning how to read music notation in order to discover the intricacies of classical composition. The fusion of this with traditional British folk music and the never-ending love of simply just playing guitar is all there in John’s work.
My condolences to his family and all his friends, especially Wizz at this time.
We are grateful to have his music. A new album with Wizz is imminent, and the very last Pentangle live concert are all waiting to be released. So there is more to come thankfully
Whenever I think of John I will see the ready smile, the twinkle in his eyes and the joy and delight he was able to share and transmit from the stage just playing his guitar.