Clip: Vashti Bunyan and Bert Jansch
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
"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