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Clip: Vashti Bunyan and Bert Jansch

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  • Carl Z.
    The new folk movement They influenced
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 12, 2006

      The new folk movement
      They influenced generations, but now the spotlight is on Vashti Bunyan
      and Bert Jansch

      By Greg Kot
      Tribune music critic
      Published November 12, 2006

      Singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan dropped out of music making for three
      decades before consumers and critics figured out how good her first
      album was. Bert Jansch, a guitarist revered by Neil Young and Led
      Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, had to wait 40 years before he was signed to an
      American record label.

      Now both artists are celebrating new releases that have drawn
      unprecedented attention to their careers. They are musical godparents
      of a generation of artists who have wrenched folk music loose from
      cliches of woolen-sweatered singalongs at the coffeehouse. This new
      brand of acoustic-powered indie rock has turned younger artists such
      as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom into underground stars. And, in
      turn, the underappreciated musicians who inspired them have found a
      broader audience.

      "I don't know if the word is `vindicated,' " says Bunyan, 61, when
      reached at her home in the British countryside. She toured America for
      the first time this year after the release of her second album,
      "Lookaftering" (DiChristina), and the re-release in 2000 of its
      ultra-obscure 1970 predecessor, "Just Another Diamond Day." "I
      couldn't have dreamed this up in my wildest moments. I still can't
      really quite believe what has happened."

      Jansch, a 63-year-old native of Scotland who headlines Friday at the
      Empty Bottle, is touring America for the first time in eight years.
      The rare overseas visit is prompted by the release of "The Black
      Swan," on the Chicago-based Drag City label. It marks the first time
      he has been signed to a U.S. record deal, Jansch says; his previous
      releases, stretching back to the '60s, were available only through
      imports or licensing deals.

      "The reception seems to be better this time," Jansch says of his
      performances in America this year, including a recent stop at Neil
      Young's Bridge School Benefit in Northern California, where he played
      with Banhart's band. "There is an audience out there now who is open
      to this type of music."

      That the music of Jansch and Bunyan still sounds contemporary also
      explains why they are cult figures. Jansch's reputation as a guitarist
      spread quickly, first as a solo artist, then as a member of the
      progressive-folk band Pentangle. His intricate finger-picking,
      informed by jazz and blues, was revered by artists such as Donovan,
      Young and Page, who based Zeppelin's "Black Mountain Side" on Jansch's
      version of the folk song "Blackwaterside." But Jansch's work was not
      nearly as popular in North America as that of his countless disciples.
      That's because his folk-informed style was eventually eclipsed in
      popularity and hype by the electric blues-rock that swept England in
      the late '60s. "Early rock 'n' roll -- Lonnie Donegan, `Rock Around
      the Clock'-- inspired me to pick up a guitar in the first place,"
      Jansch says. "But I missed out on the Rolling Stones and Beatles. By
      that time my head was well into folk music, particularly [British folk
      guitarist] Davey Graham. There were no boundaries attached to his
      playing. Davey and the people influenced by him were outside all the
      traditional ways of playing at the time."

      Ready for challenge

      Bunyan, an art-school dropout, was writing and singing songs in clubs
      when Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham tried to fashion her
      into a pop chanteuse along the lines of Marianne Faithful.

      "I wasn't a folk singer, but I wanted to bring the idea of the nomadic
      troubadour, the bohemian life into mainstream pop music," Bunyan says.
      "I didn't think of myself like any other female singer at the time."

      An orchestrated cover of a Stones song flopped, and subsequent
      recordings went unreleased. Penniless, Bunyan and her boyfriend left
      London in a horse-drawn cart in search of an artists community that
      Donovan was setting up on the Isle of Skye, in northwest Scotland. The
      700-mile journey took two summers, during which Bunyan wrote the songs
      that would enchant Joe Boyd, a respected producer in Europe (he had
      already worked with Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band
      and others). Boyd recruited some of England's finest folk-rock
      musicians for Bunyan's debut album, including Dave Swarbrick, Simon
      Nicol and Robin Williamson.

      When "Just Another Diamond Day" was finally released in late 1970, a
      year after it was completed, it was dismissed by the critics, who
      scoffed at its innocence and optimism. Bunyan herself harbored doubts
      about the musical direction; she wanted more of a chamber-pop feel,
      but several tracks reflected the style of her folkie accomplices more
      than her own.

      "It was the story of a journey, which wasn't understood at the time,"
      she says. "The album was dismissed as trivial, which it was by late
      1970. Many of the songs were written in 1968, and things were moving
      fast. There wasn't much of a market for a quiet girl with a guitar."

      Bunyan retired from music to rear three children, now ranging in age
      from 20 to 36. "Whenever I picked up a guitar after that, it just made
      me sad," she says. Bunyan didn't even own a copy of her own album.

      A new generation of folkies

      But in 1997, she was surfing the Internet when she discovered to her
      amazement that the long-forgotten "Just Another Diamond Day" had
      struck a chord with a new generation of artists and fans, who were
      paying top dollar for rare vinyl copies and trading cassettes of it.
      The album was issued in 2000 on CD for the first time. Bunyan's
      collection of Internet correspondents included the then-unknown
      Banhart, who took to scrawling Bunyan's name on his arm before

      "He still didn't know if people would love or hate him when he went on
      stage, so it was his way of reminding himself that at least one person
      liked his music," Bunyan says.

      During his rise to stardom, Banhart consistently pointed back to the
      early work of Bunyan and Jansch, as well as that of Native American
      folk-blues singer Karen Dalton and the late Nick Drake, as touchstones
      of the new folk movement he found himself spearheading along with
      Newsom, the Animal Collective, Vetiver, Adem and Espers. Banhart
      appears on the latest albums by Bunyan and Jansch, and his guitarist
      and producer Noah Georgeson co-produced the Jansch disc. One of
      Jansch's more famous guitar students, U.K. singer-songwriter Beth
      Orton, sings lead on a few tunes. Newsom plays harp on Bunyan's new

      `Timeless feel to it'

      Despite the input from the younger musicians, there is little
      difference between the latest discs by these veteran talents and their
      vintage releases. Like Jansch's self-titled 1965 debut, "The Black
      Swan" was recorded at home. It pulses with melancholy, and it is
      punctuated by deft guitar playing. "It sounds exactly like a Bert
      Jansch disc from the '60s," says another high-profile fan, the
      Decemberists' Colin Meloy. "It explains why this music holds up so
      well. There is a timeless feel to it."

      Jansch and Bunyan are hard-pressed to see the direct connection
      between themselves and the new artists who champion them. Certainly
      Banhart's South American influences, the baroque Appalachia evoked by
      Newsom's songs and harp playing, and the droning tone poems of Espers
      suggest myriad offshoots beyond the path forged by their predecessors.

      What these performers have picked up from their '60s predecessors is a
      willingness to push new ideas out of old formulas.

      "None of the labels applied to this music -- `freak folk,' `new weird
      Americana' -- make sense to me," Bunyan says. "The only link between
      us is individualism. I don't mind being lumped in with them, but I
      think it's the wrong way around. These people opened up an area of
      music that my music could finally fit into. They made my music
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