Monday 30 March 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old English guitar player called John Renbourn

John, who redefined folk music in the 1960s by introducing elements from classical, jazz and blues into his soulful guitar playing and is remembered for his career with 'Pentangle', has died at the age of seventy.

What you possibly didn't know about John, that he :

* was born John McCombe in 1944 during the Second World War in Marylebone, West London and grew up for his first six years without a father, killed in action in the War, in a middle class family where, "everyone played something or other" and one wealthy enough to own and house a classical piano, indicated when he recalled : "My Mother played light-classical pieces on the piano, which also served as the family bomb-shelter during the air raids. I recall her playing with great fondness and still play an arrangement of Schumann's 'Im Wunderschonen Monat Mai' on the guitar."

* by the age of 5 was playing a banjo and at 6, gained a step-father, Edward Renbourn, an Army physician, when his Mother remarried and moved to his new home in Surrey and despite his stepfather's disapproval of his love of Roy Rogers, the 'Singing Cowboy' , got his first guitar at 11 and had private 'classical guitar' lessons at the age of 12 from a woman who taught him to play "with my thumb and three fingers in a very orthodox way" and at George Abbot Secondary School, in Guildford and recalled : "I took music lessons with a patient man named John Webber who introduced me to Early Music which had yet to become part of the curriculum. At the same time I sat my grade exams on classical guitar at the Guildhall, presided over by Adele Kramer."

* recalled, when he was 11 : "I heard Josh White the blues singer about 1955. I used to go hear him play and that’s what got me going. I wanted to play just like Josh White” who, with his left-wing views, was in Britain , in exile for five years from a USA in the grip of anti-communism and no doubt heard him play his 1947 hit, 'House of the Rising Sun'.

* and in his early teens in the late 1950s, came under the influence of the 'skiffle' musical craze which swept the country with its amalgam of American folk, blues, bluegrass and jugband styles and enthused teenagers with its big hit, 'Freight Train' by the 'Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group', when he was 13 in 1957.

* in the backstreets of Guildford, bought his  'first playable steel-string guitar. It cost me five pounds and was an object of wonder and beauty. It was a Scarth...It had its little idiosyncrasies - the action went up and down according to the weather, which could be counteracted by wedging a lollypop stick under the neck - a feature that merely added to its mystique' and filed down ping-pong balls to use as artificial nails and give his sound more resonance and fifty years later said : "People tell me I'm living in the Dark Ages. I'm scorned for using these old ping-pong balls, but they work, there's nothing much wrong with them, apart from the fact they're flammable."

* at the age of 17 in 1961, after mounting fiction with his step-father, who disapproved his pursuit of a career in music, left school and left home : “He’s the reason I had to clear out and leave home early, just to get out of that bad environment", went hitch-hiking and ended up in the north of Scotland, making money working in kitchens, peeling potatoes, before moving to London, where he began mingling with budding young guitarists like Mac MacLeod.

* living on an old boat on the River Thames, in the early 60's, attended, 'fairly frequently' , but failed to graduate from Kingston College of Art and later reflected : "The Art Schools seemed to be turning out more musicians than artists at that time. The Yardbirds were at Kingston, as were Eric Clapton and Sandy Denny. The R 'n' B craze had replaced skiffle and the best band was considered to be Alexis Korner's 'Blues Incorporated' " and played in, a College R 'n' B band, 'Hog Snort Rupert's Famous Porkestra', using a borrowed electric guitar and "found that some of the band's riffs sounded interesting played fingerstyle on an acoustic guitar and pieces like 'The Wildest Pig In Captivity' came out of that."

* left Kingston, lived in a flat in West London with what remained of the band, but found that : "Things were not looking too promising. Though the British 'Folk Revival' was underway, most of the clubs had a heavily traditional bias and guitar players were often frowned upon. It took the collaboration of Davey Graham and Shirley Collins to start to change that, but it was a rocky process."

* by good fortune, was taken to the Roundhouse in Soho which had a more 'open' musical policy, played a few tunes and met Dorris Henderson, a blues and gospel singer from Los Angeles, looking for a guitar player with a trusty Scarth and as a result recorded 'There You Go' on the first of two albums as her accompanist.

* secured a regular spot on an ITV weekly children's show, 'Five O'clock Club' with Alexis Korner's house band, met his bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox and at the same time found 'Les Cousins Club' in Greek Street, a meeting place for the guitar players and song writers unwelcome in the traditional clubs and with the added bonus of continuing his education by meeting visiting American artists and recalled : "I had the chance to hear some great players. Derrol Adams, Sandy Bull, Jackson Frank, Paul Simon, Spider John Koerner, Danny Kalb and Stefan Grossman all showed up at some stage and there was a healthy interchange of ideas."

* in 1964, "came across a poster for a Bert Jansch gig in 'Bunjies Coffee Bar', advertised as  ‘THE BEST BLUES IN TOWN' while having a drink with Wizz Jones, who was already well established and asked him : "Who's this guy that plays the best blues in town? We’re supposed to be the best blues in town." He said it was "Bert Jansch and he’s really good" and coming from Wizz that was unheard of. So we went along to see him and he was fantastic. Not at just playing blues, which he could play like Brownie McGhee, but the stuff he had written, which was way ahead of anything else being done in London. He was really, really out there.”

* in 1965 at the age of 21, when he was "trying to play a bit and not getting anywhere because nobody wanted me in the folk clubs", met Nat Joseph who, at 21 in 1961, had founded 'Transatlantic Records' as  importer of American folk, blue and jazz records and recalled : "my prettiest girlfriend came with me for good luck and we walked up to the boss's home in highest Hampstead from deepest Kilburn" and recalled : "when Nat took that record of mine, it really helped me in life, so I was very, very grateful to him” and "It was a great moment for me when that record came out - a big smudgy brown LP with my picture on the front of my five quid guitar with a lollypop stick holding the neck up, and my name in letters, spelt right. It set me on the road to fame and fortune, even if it didn't get me more than the statutory two per cent."

* by 1966 had joined forces with Bert Jansch, who had played a couple of tracks on his first eponymous album and with whom he shared a flat and together they created a style which became known as 'folk baroque' and recalled "the domestic record companies were getting interested in what was going on in the world of 'Folk' and Transatlantic sent out their recording engineer with a tape machine to capture the 'authentic' sounds on location in deepest South London and recorded 'Bert And John' with blankets tacked up in the hallway to keep out the noise of their neighbours" and remembered Bill Leader "coming over to a pad I shared with Bert, setting up the tape machine in the sink and having us play in the broom cupboard."

* was now playing a 'Gibson J-50', bought from an American serviceman at an airbase and by the time he released his second solo album, 'Another Monday' in 1967, had started to play with Jacqui McShee, who in addition to American material, sang versions of British traditional songs as well as playing with Bert at 'Les Cousins' "where Alexis would come down with a trio and it was a natural progression to ask Danny and Terry to join and we found that we had a lot of musical common ground and we became a band. We called ourselves 'Pentangle' after the emblem on Sir Gawain's shield in the story of the Green Knight. The music was a loose mixture of all our influences, initially much of it improvised on the stand."

performed "public rehearsals" with 'Pentangle' in the Horseshoe Hotel in Tottenham Court Road and made their concert debut at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967. and

* saw 'The Pentangle' album "picked up by Warner Bros. in America and things started happening fast. We toured America in 1968 playing prestigious gigs like Carnegie Hall" and in 1969 played with his semi-acoustic Gibson 335 at the Newport Folk Festival "which was nice as we finally got to meet some of the old timers including Jesse Fuller himself. We also played the Fillmores, East and West, working alongside James Taylor and The Grateful Dead."

 * found that “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" and "We were so amazed by the whole thing it was like funny really, a joke. Mock-English airs and graces we were wondering around pretending we were Lord Fauntleroy”, but also “that touring lifestyle is very gruelling and it didn’t take long for everyone to be absolutely wrecked.”

* continued to pursue his solo career with his album, 'Sir John Alot' in 1968 with its mixture of jazz, folk and blues and “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.”

* in 1969 saw Pentangle's third album, 'Basket of Light', take them into the charts when the opening track, 'Light  Flight', chosen as theme tune for the BBC TV series, 'Take Three Girls' but unwilling to be classed with the emergent group of 'folk artists', used 'The Lady And The Unicorn' in 1970, to express his interest in 'Early Music' and "made instrumental arrangements of songs that I had learned from Jacqui."

* recalled that in 1971, at the age of 27 : "When I thought I was about to leave 'Transatlantic' for good I made a sort of "goodbye and thank you" album 'Faro Annie' - folk-blues side of me ten years on, as if to round things off "

* by the time Pentangle split up in 1973, after their last album, 'Solomon's Seal', ,had seen the group's career span six albums, tv appearances, three movie soundtracks, including Roddy McDowall's 'Tam Lin' in 1970 as well as several American and world tours and continued his solo career and interest in 'Early Music' with 'The Hermit' in 1976.

* worked again with Jaquie McShee to form 'The John Renbourn Group' which integrated Indian tabla with guitar and jazz reeds, produced 'A Maid in Bedlam' in 1977 and then after three years, 'Enchanted Garden and 'Live in America' in 1980 and later recalled : "We were taped playing at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and the recording 'Live In America' earned us a 'Grammy Nomination' in the Folk Music category. We were pipped at the post by Queen Ida but we all felt that was fair enough."

* returned to 'Transatlantic' in 1979  playing a Guild D-55 : "when I came wandering in again, new shoes and all, it seemed right to start with an album of the other type of music I had been encouraged to pursue. I called that album 'Black Balloon', mainly because that was the logo of the Transatlantic label. It was a way of saying it was good to be back."

* in the late 70s collaborated with American guitarist Stefan Grossman and recorded  two albums which recalled his baroque days with Bert.
* in 1982 started a three year degree couse in 'Composition and Orchestration' at Dartington College of Arts in Devon where :" the most wonderful aspect was the range of music covered by the course, much of which I had scarcely been aware of. It was an awesome experience but not without its lighter side. To keep my hand in I still took the occasional gig whenever I could. These usually passed without comment but special dispensation had to be applied for in order to re-sit my second year exams when it was discovered that they clashed with a concert with Doc Watson at the Carnegie Hall."

* in 1984 formed a partnership with guitarist Wizz Jones and added acoustic guitars to the soundtrack of the Michael Winner movie,  'Scream For Help', a studio project with his neighbour, John Paul Jones, and in 1988, at the age of 44,  returned to the ensemble format and  his interest in Celtic music when he "was asked to put together a band for a concert in New York's Central Park. Maggie Boyle (vocals) and Steve Tilston  (guitar) joined Tony Roberts (flute) and myself and we called ourselves 'Ship of Fools' after Sebastian Brant's early moralistic commentary, recording one album under that name for Flying Fish."

* in 2005, at the age of 61, made his 'fifth' tour of Japan with Tokio Uchida and Woody Mann and the following year played venues in England and made appearances with Robin Williamson "whom I had known from the early days before the Incredible String Band and the Pentangle took to the road" and with Jacqui McShee collaborated on the score for the film 'Driving Lessons' starring Julie Walters.

* in 2010 was honoured by the Martin Company with their production of a new guitar, his "own signature model. It’s a gem. The specs sheet tells a lot, but not all. The playability and sound are in the hyperbole class. I’m one lucky plunker."

* in 2011, released, what was to be his last album, 'Palermo Snow', featuring clarinetist Dick Lee with the title track a complex mix of classical, folk, jazz and blues and a Arabic/Mediterranean sound evoked by his stay in the city  while in concert, during a rare snowfall in the Sicilian city when : "Everyone seemed to be entranced, going about like sleepwalkers as a spooky silence hung in the air. It is hard to forget being there and witnessing a big, bustling city held in thrall by a fall of snow."

* had taught guitar at Dartington College and  settled into the role of guitar tutor, able to demonstrate guitar styles of the 1960s with consummate ease : and had workshops in picturesque locations : the foot hills of the Pyrenees, Andalucia, Dordogne and  Crete and commented that : “It’s just total bliss. I’m doing more or less what I wanted to do and now I do workshops rather than shows” and “If someone wants to come in their Bentley and stay in the Hilton they can, or if they want to hitchhike and sleep rough they can do that."

* since 2012, had toured with Wizz Jones, playing a mixture of solo and duo material and played nine gigs with him at table Lodge in Derbyshire in March and was set to return to Crete for a guitar workshop in May when he died at his home in Hawick, Scotland. :

* was paid tribute by John Cole in his review of 'Palermo Snow' in 2011 :

' In his remarkable duets with Bert Jansch and their work together in Pentangle, he could travel effortlessly from Renaissance music to jazz. He could play a salterello and he could play Mingus. In everything he did, Renbourn was a soulful player. He made it easy to be a fan.'

What better epitaph might an old guitar player have than :
                    'He made it easy to be a fan.'
Looking back on his life at 69 said : “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.” 



  1. Thanks for sending this to me. Just beautiful.

  2. JR and BJ were my two most influential, favorite British players closely followed by Richard Thompson's early work with his first wife Linda. I tried to emulate everything they played that made it across the pond. Eventually, I settled on trying to keep tone in the forefront of what I was playing. John Renbourn gave every acoustic steel-string player so much, we should all have small shrines to his work set up in our homes!

  3. Great Read John, Good job

  4. Grateful thanks for this great homage to JR.