Legendary folk artist John Renbourn reminisces over a career that has spanned six decades, twenty plus albums and countless memories, reports Simon Robb
When John Renbourn’s name is uttered in conversation, over the radio waves, or on television, for many it sparks thoughts of an excelled British guitarist, folk trailblazer and the hit band Pentangle - for me, however, it conjures up images of my late friend Pat Veeran, who before she succumbed to a long illness, handed me over a collection of her vinyls featuring Renbourn’s early solo work.
His distinct acoustic fingering flung melodies from my Lin Sondek turntable and into the living room as though the man himself was there, sat on the sofa - Pat still in earshot.
Living on the Scottish Borders in a rural expanse away from the urban rush of Oakland California, his previous home, I speak with John over the phone from the County Times office.
It is like conversing through those stereo speakers - only this time instead of static, all the answers to my big questions bounce back.
“I was living in an area outside San Francisco, then I came to play at the Edinburgh Festival and I felt a lot safer for some reason. I was living in a ghetto before. There was so much street violence I was scared to be out there,” shares John.
“I mentioned this to a Scottish guy and he said, don’t worry laddie we can provide violence here just as much (laughs).”
Not only has John found a safe haven that he can call home - he has taken up teaching others the art of the guitar - something which he is considerably qualified to do.
“Quite a few years ago I decided that I had enough of touring on the road, which is something I got locked into doing pretty early on and it’s pretty much what I’ve done all my life, so I decided to stop and see what happened.
“It’s just total bliss. I’m doing more or less what I wanted to do and now I do workshops rather than shows.”
Choosing picturesque locations from across the globe, John has taught, inspired and nurtured guitarists of all ages and levels of expertise in the foot hills of the Pyrenees, Andalucia, Dordogne and southern Crete, to name a few.
“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.
“I get incredibly well-heeled people that have done amazingly well in the commercial world and then characters who have been busking - and they all sit around the same table drinking wine and talking guitars - it’s great.”
The world that John inhabits today is far removed from the start of his journey, growing up in Marylebone, which his mother claimed was in earshot of the Bow Bells, before moving to Surrey with her new husband.
“I grew up in a family where everyone played something or other.
“I got a guitar when I was really little, and then 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.”
Studying music at Kingston College of Art, John took finger-style exams playing Carcassi and other classical performers that brought the parlour guitar to the forefront.
But on the cusp of the popular American blues and jazz movement in the ‘50s came a craze that launched youths into the ‘do it yourself’ realm of Skiffle music.
“My mother-in-law who thought I was never going to amount to anything, looked at me one day and said, you know John there’s something called a skateboard and it’s going to replace that thing you play.
“So Skiffle was on a similar level to kids doing skateboarding, and all my peers played guitar.”
John was also up against the disapproval of his step-father, which led to him moving out of home so he could pursue music full time.
“He’s the reason I had to clear out and leave home early, just to get out of that bad environment.”
Hitchhiking, John ended up in the north of Scotland before coming back to London where he began mingling with budding young guitarists like Mac MacLeod.
“Folk was a strange kind of word that came in, almost like a media buzz word, because nobody had really talked about folk before - it became a commercial term.
“I remember being classed as folk when the record company finally recorded me and said, well you are folk, aren’t you?”
In fact, John did not want to be classed along with the bandwagon of folk artists that were emerging on the scene in the early ‘60s.
“There was a folk movement, as it were, which was people trying to revive the British tradition of very po-faced stuff and opening up so-called relaxed clubs and pubs where they were actually torturing people with academic versions of folk songs that they could hardly sing properly, and a bunch of people like myself and Mac hated all that.”
Having recorded his first album with Transatlantic Reocrds in London - a small independent label, John came across a poster for a Bert Jansch gig in Collet’s Record Shop - referred to as the ‘best blues in town’.
“I went to the Black Horse and was having a drink with Wizz Jones who was already well established, and I asked him, whose 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.”
To read the second part of John Renbourn’s fascinating interview, including his relationship with Bert Jansch, his solo career and forming Pentangle, pick up next week’s County Times WOW Guide out April 17.
If you are interested in learning more about John’s workshops, visit www.johnrenbourn.co.uk