Pentangle got a bit of stick and still does... but music is about putting ideas together and understanding them, not making sounds you think are trendy”: Why John Renbourn always stood up to the purists

John Renbourn
(Image credit: Getty Images)

John Renbourn was as surprised as anyone when he found a successful career as a musician. But, armed with a strong vision and determined to take on musical purists and their rules, he made an indelible mark with Bert Jansch and Pentangle through baroque prog and folk jazz. In 2011 – four years before his death at 70 – he looked back with Prog.

It’s 1965 and in one of the numerous folk clubs dotted around the country, the eyes of one 12-year boy in particular dart back and forth, trying to follow the finger-picking style of a visiting guitarist topping that evening’s bill.

With rapt attention he watches every flick of the guitarist’s fingers, marvelling at the precision and delivery of chord sequences assembled and dispatched with quicksilver speed. In-between songs, the guitarist retunes his strings, and for the boy, these new tunings evoke exotic worlds of previously unheard-of harmonic possibilities.

With his head still resounding after seeing and hearing John Renbourn in concert, the boy went home and fervently began to emulate his new-found hero. Having secured a copy of Renbourn’s self-titled debut album he spent hours constantly dropping the needle of his record player back and forth onto the vinyl, slowly decoding guitarist’s secrets, and, perhaps most important of all, how to get it under his own fingertips.

“It was bloody difficult finger-picking, playing one melody with the bass and one over the top. It’s difficult telling one finger to do one thing when another is doing something completely different; the fingering was sometimes agonisingly painful. It was such a wonderful achievement when I could actually do it. I wanted to be like John Renbourn not as a singer-songwriter but as an instrumentalist.”

Seeing Renbourn in concert provided the 12-year old Mike Oldfield with the catalyst to take his playing to the next level.

Of this encounter some 46 years ago,  Renbourn laughs wryly when he’s told the name of his ardent admirer, clearly recognising something of his own fanatical attention to detail in the behaviour of the still-fledgling guitarist. “I did exactly the same thing with Davy Graham records.” he says of the innovative British guitarist who died in 2008, and whose composition, Anji, with its gently descending cyclical sequence caused something of a revolution in the folk music world and beyond.

“Mike Oldfield’s done some fantastic things. Tubular Bells is based in part on Anji, so there’s a connection that goes all the way through this, and Mike’s been an enormous influence on world music with albums like Ommadawn, so all those things are in a kind of line, aren’t they?”

The mention of Davy Graham instantly takes Renbourn back to a time and place, a London of the early 60s when the itinerant guitarist was akin to a travelling gunslinger, quick on the draw with a grab-bag of tunes that mixed up all kinds of influences. “I used to follow Davy around all the time. He was a free spirit and I can remember him playing stuff that I just could not believe. He was without doubt a towering influence not just on me but Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Gordon Giltrap, Archie Fisher, Roy Harper, everyone on the early folk scene.

“People have often talked about that time as being some kind of golden period especially when looking backwards. I think if you put together all those names you’d come up with the idea that they were all forging some new sound. In actual fact nearly everyone was struggling. Roy Harper lived around the corner not doing very well at all. Anne Briggs was hitch-hiking most of the time. Alex Campbell was living in Paris, off and on, busking in the streets. I think the real truth is that every one was kind of on their uppers.”

Though we think of the guitar as being synonymous with the folk scene, the instrument’s acceptance was something that only started to enjoy widespread use in the mid-to-late 50s, and a grudging acceptance in the 60s. “In the early days, of course, nobody wanted to listen to the kind of things we were doing because of the stranglehold of the old folk movement and the purists. I still remember the days of the old folk clubs where if you came in with a guitar you’d be frowned upon. The purists went on about how wrong it was to be playing guitars and that folk music should be simply sung,” he notes disapprovingly.

It was common for musicians like Renbourn who refused to be hemmed in by a proscriptive notion of what might be deemed ‘authentic‘, to encounter significant levels of hostility in the numerous folk clubs that sprang up across the UK in the post-war years. For someone with an omnivorous musical appetite such as himself, purists, in any guise, are bad news. Run-ins with so-called ‘keepers of the truth’ have been a recurring feature throughout his career.

Palermo Snow, his new record and his first studio recording since 1998, continues his long-standing tradition of following his nose when it comes to music, admitting that the range of styles covered look to be unlikely bedfellows. “There’s music by French impressionist Erik Satie, the contemporary Afro-American jazz musician Randy Weston, ideas taken from Jelly Roll Morton and even Bach, all interspersed with my own things. What holds them together is the harmonic language. I’m hoping that the record will appeal to people who respond to musical content rather than categories.”

That ongoing quest for content above category was something that led Renbourn in January 1968 to record his third solo album, the influential Sir John Alot of Merry Englandes Musyk Thynge and ye Grene Knyghte for the Transatlantic label. Here he audaciously connected ancient English music to contemporary motifs with consummate style.

He’s assisted in this by the startling and beautiful recorder playing of early music scholar and performer, David Munrow, who would also make telling contributions to Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Harvest label album, Anthems In Eden. The presence of presence of jazz flautist Ray Warleigh (later to guest with Soft Machine) and percussionist Terry Cox (with whom he would form The Pentangle) blur the boundaries further still.

“I’m very fond of that record and I think it was probably much more influential than people realise. I was on tour in in a place in upstate New York and there was a lot of guys in the bar drinking and making a lot of noise. They were a rowdy bunch. Afterwards we got friendly and they said ‘We’re all artists and our mentor is Willem de Kooning [abstract expressionist painter]. The reason we came down tonight was because de Kooning used to drive us mad playing your records.’

“They told me he used to have a ‘happening’ workshop where they’d all paint and that he’d put SirJohn Alot... on the record player and just keep turning it over and over. That’s all they heard for months! So it was influential in all sorts of ways beyond the music scene.”

Forty three years after its release, Sir John Alot... remains a remarkably powerful amalgamation of seemingly irreconcilable and disparate musical worlds. The same might be said of The Pentangle, whose self-titled debut was also issued that year. The group included Renbourn’s long-standing musical partner Bert Jansch on guitar, Danny Thompson on acoustic bass, Terry Cox on drums and Jacquie McShee’s soaring, angelic vocals.

A formidably talented unit, they created a heady, eclectic brew of folk, jazz, and blues born from long session at now- legendary venues such as Les Cousins, in Soho’s Greek Street. Their penchant for improvisation was born from necessity as much as any desire to subvert or stretch cultural boundaries, as Renbourn explains. “Les Cousins used to be an all-nighter so you needed a lot of material to get through a night like that.

“Danny and Terry were great players who liked to improvise, and me and Bert had a few ideas that we’d stretch out. Improvising would be part of the idea of extending the gig, basically. Pentangle also got a bit of stick originally from the purists – and it still does.”

Pentangle’s tearing up of the code of conduct expected from a ‘folk’ outfit was mirrored in the parallel worlds of the psychedelic and underground scene at home and abroad. “Country Joe And The Fish, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane right from their very beginnings – they’d all been influenced by folk and folk-blues and they’d gone electric. The Dead are considered a rock band but really they were kind of like an upmarket jug band.

“There were a whole bunch of guys closer to home at that time who were more spacey than us and playing places like UFO. Very early Pink Floyd, Third Ear Band, East Of Eden; I loved all that stuff and the open-mindedness of it, and the fact that they were so experimental.”

Even now, Renbourn is partial to a bit of progging out. “I live out in the country in the southern part of Scotland and across the hill is Frank Usher (lead guitarist with Fish). We get together occasionally and Frank’s always very funny because he started to listen to me when I tried to play lead lines in Pentangle on a Gibson 335 all those years ago. So I’ve had a little dabble at it but I’m not in his league. Frank is a great, great player.”

Taking ideas and practices from different cultures is part and parcel of what it means to be a progressively-inclined musician, argues Renbourn. “I don’t think there are any barriers once you’re into music – it’s just a whole world to explore. You could take a scale and improvise on it, like a raga in Eastern music. But what happens if you take not an Indian or Arabic scale, but an old Irish scale instead and improvise on that?

“Those things are legitimate concepts and it’s what gets you further in the world. It’s about exploring and putting different ideas together and actually understanding them, rather than just making sounds which you think might be trendy.”

In 2008 Pentangle reformed for a concert which then went to undertake a series of sell-out tours. “My initial reaction was you can’t turn back the clock,” he admits. “But when Pentangle got back together it sounded pretty nice. So somebody said we should rehearse. Well, the real truth about Pentangle in the original days was that we never ever rehearsed before. But this time around we did, and it really paid off.

“We were in a rehearsal studio for a couple of weeks non-stop, going through the material so that when we got on stage it was slick and people really responded! Things were a lot better this time around. It was an enormous improvement on the original stuff, I thought.”

Now dividing his time between tours with the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson (“I think he’s one of the great forces of our culture. Not that I’d tell him that, mind you” he quips), and running residential guitar camps in Spain, he’s frankly surprised by both his longevity and legacy – but delighted nevertheless.

“I’m now 66 and I can’t quite get it into my head that I’ve had a career in music because, it was just something I fell into after getting kicked out of Guildford art school. The fact that I’ve managed to get through to the other end, and cross the finishing line by playing music for a living is just something that makes me kick my heels and think ‘I’ve won!’”

As if to underline that success, renowned guitar manufacturers, Martin, have issued their John Renbourn Signature model. “After all these years I’ve got one with my own name on it. I just can’t believe it. I remember being in London and going into Ivor Mairants shop, trying to get him to show me a Martin guitar, and he chased me out. Now I’ve got my own! There’s a lot of irony there but I’m not complaining.”

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.