Today’s birthday boy, Bert Jansch, the Scottish guitarist, was a late discovery for me. My daughter Kajsa brought some of his music around after the release of his career-long, double-CD retrospective, Dazzling Stranger, in 2000. His music goes back to those fabled mid-Sixties when he influenced the likes of Jimmy Page and Neil Young and played with Pentangle and was part of that Brit-folk movement that included Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention.
I did all I could to make sure Kajsa heard plenty of that stuff, growing up, and she repaid me with Jansch’s stuff. We finally saw him play, around 2007, in Brooklyn, on the tour for The Black Swan (2006), and the dude checked out in 2011, at 67.
That night we saw him, he played today’s song, which was already my favorite track on Dazzling Stranger. It was written by Jackson C. Frank, an American guitarist with a sad career who wrote songs Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake and others recorded. I like Jansch’s version of the song, as it appears on Stranger, better than Frank’s; Jansch's version is lifted from Live at the 12 Bar Club in 1995. Jansch slurs his way through the lyrics at points but that just helps to give credence to the fact that “me and room service are living a life of sin.” Can’t find that version online, so here he is performing the song on TV around the time I saw him live.
Frank certainly hit hard times and the song is a wary blues number by someone who knows that the rough life is the source of the songs he sings. Jansch makes it sound rueful and sadder, wiser, but at the same time there’s a gruff “fuck off” in his tone too. This is not someone asking for pity, or, as the Bard might say, “here is one who neither begs nor fears your favors nor your hate.” The blues run the game, “wherever I’ve been and gone.” It’s the same everywhere. Maybe when I’m older, baby, some place down the line / I’ll wake up older, and stop all my trying.
More than the lyrics of course, the quality that makes me sit up and take notice is the guitar figure that supports the song—Jansch plays it without vocals, around 3:27-47 on the video—and which sounds sweet and wistful, like passages you’ve heard in Brit folk acoustic numbers everywhere. Somewhat seasoned, somewhat cryptic, somewhat resigned, somewhat hopeful. What can I say? Though I’ve never plucked an instrument with anything like skill, this kind of music runs my game.
That said, I’m not as steeped in everything Jansch gets up to as I might be. I have to be in a certain mood and, sure, that mood does come upon me when we get back to EST here in the northeast and it’s November with Halloween gone and Thanksgiving looming. There’s a spirit to such days that makes songs like Jansch sings, many of them ye olde traditional tunes, quite welcome. Which reminds me that, if all goes well, I’ll see Scotland next summer, England too, though I won’t be catching “a boat to England,” rather catching a boat in Denmark to take me to those places, eventually. I’ll have to make sure I’ve got this song on my iPod for the trip.
Living is a gamble, baby
Loving’s much the same