John Renbourn

On a Facebook page that I moderate – Folk Music of the British Isles – I frequently post articles about and videos of artists that I admire. In selecting items to post there I began to notice a decided bias toward fingerstyle guitarist/folk singers who have influenced my own music. The first of these is John Renbourn. This is not intended to be a full biography – rather it is his musical history through my experience of it. I bought my first John Renbourn album only about thirteen years ago!. Although I was vaguely aware there had been a group called Pentangle in the 1960s, I can’t recall ever actually hearing their music or knowing the names of any of the members. I came to that album, 1977’s A Maid in Bedlam, through my interest in the music I was hearing at renaissance festivals. Knowing I was a guitarist, one of the faire musicians recommended it as a place to start exploring traditional British folk. I was instantly enthralled by Renbourn’s guitar artistry and by the singing of Jacqui McShee. herself a former member of Pentangle. Three songs from that album were regularly performed at faire, and they, along with a fourth – Black Waterside – are still part of my repertoire today. The John Renbourn Group also recorded a live album in 1981 – Live in America – which contained many more song gems to be mined, particularly The Trees They Grow High, which had been recorded by Pentangle and which I recorded with Wyldefyre on our album All’s Faire. This song is known by various titles – The Trees They Do Grow High, Daily Growing, Bonny Boy, etc. According to Roud and Bishop (British folk song cataloguers and historians) “Judging by the number of versions gathered in the major manuscript collections and later sound recordings, this song has been a firm favourite with singers in Britain, Ireland and North America for a long time, the wording varies surprisingly little across the English versions and the story is always the same, and these probably derive from nineteenth-century broadside printings, of which there are many.” Although the song is found much earlier, two verses having been discovered in David Herd’s manuscript collection dating from the 1770s, it may have been based on an actual arranged marriage from 1634! But I digress… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwlRqTk3ir8 After being led to those first albums, I have gone through Renbourn’s back catalog. His teaming with fellow guitarist Bert Jansch in Pentangle is now deservedly legendary and his solo work and later collaborations shine with unparralled creativity and technique. Renbourn’s interest in early and renaissance music was in evidence on his solo album Sir John a Lot (1968) and his Celtic influences shone on later solo outings such as The Hermit and The Nine Maidens, which featured, among others, tunes by the legendary Irish harper/composer Turlough O’Carolan. In the mid-1980s Renbourn earned a degree in music composition from Dartlington School of Arts in Devon (now part of University College, Falmouth – how’s that for trivia?). Over the years he has had many lucrative musical collaborators, among them Stefan Grossman, bard Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), the aforementioned Jacqui McShee and many more. He’s recorded a series of video lessons for aspiring guitarists, contributed to film soundtracks and much more. In 2011 he released Palermo Snow, a collection of instrumental guitar solos also featuring clarinetist Dick Lee – adding to the more than fifty albums which bear his name and his superb fingerstyle guitar. Talking of which, Martin Guitars have just issued the John Renbourn Signature Model. Now aged 69, John Renbourn has continued to record, tour and conducts guitar workshops all over the world including England, France and, recently, Crete! Attending one of these would be a true busman’s holiday for me.

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A Life In (Folk) Music…Continued

In a previous blog – “A Life In (Folk) Music” – I mentioned some early influences who inspired me to become a folk musician. As I developed a repertoire of “Celtic folk songs” to perform, there were a few select artists whose song selection (and/or songwriting) and presentation spoke to me vividly and, since this is my blog, I’d like to pay tribute to one of them here, and I’ll discuss some others in the near future.

Show of Hands

Show of Hands

Steve Knightley (singer/songwriter) and Phil Beer (singer/multi-instrumentalist) – sometimes with Miranda Sykes, who I jokingly say has my job (playing bass and singing harmony) – make up Show of Hands –  for over twenty years the premiere purveyors of acoustic folk music in Britain.

About twelve years ago I luckily stumbled upon their web site whilst seeking out songs to sing. And did I ever find songs! The first album I bought by SoH was called Folk Music. It’s now out of print, but it contained songs which are still in my repertoire: John Riley, Broomfield Hill, Black Waterside, Mary From Dungloe, Matt Hyland. And this wonderful album of mostly traditional songs only whetted my appetite for more. The next album I bought (I think it was simply called Show of Hands) was primarily Steve Knightley penned originals and I was well and truly hooked. His song Exile is one my favourite songs to sing.

I’m not only a fan of their music, but also of their business model. They perform live at folk clubs, town halls, auditoriums and festivals the length and breadth of England. And, every five years or so, they book the Royal Albert Hall in London for themselves and sell it out! They’ve won awards from the BBC, among others, not only for their music but for their social and environmental activism.

I probably don’t have the words to convey what their music – and their example – has meant to me. They are as important to me now as the Beatles were way back when. Talking of which, you should hear SoH’s version of George Harrison’s If I Needed Someone. 

I hope you will give Show of Hands a listen. They deserve to be a household name on both sides of the pond.

Click this link to browse Show of Hands albums: Show of Hands Music.

A Life In (Folk) Music

I was recently asked how I ended up playing and singing folk music. The fact is I didn’t “end up” doing it – I started out in folk music. And, although I’ve played many styles (rock, blues, jazz fusion) in my career as an electric bassist, it’s always been folk and acoustic music that I most enjoyed.

The first record I ever bought (1962?) was an EP by The Kingston Trio which contained their hit “Tom Dooley”. I loved the storytelling aspect of the song, the harmonies and the acoustic instruments. My next record purchase was the double album Harry Belafonte At Carnegie Hall. Yes, that Harry Belafonte. Recorded in 1959, it had all his calypso hits, but also folk songs from all over the world. “Danny Boy”, “John Henry”, “Shennendoah”, even “Hava Nagila”! His voice, phrasing and the obvious rapport between the singer and the audience captivated me, and I think it was then that I decided I wanted to be a singer.

I joined the school choir, learning more about harmony structures, and developing what ultimately became a three octave vocal range. And then, in 1963, I heard John Gary for the first time. I’ll try to be brief on this subject, although I could (and possibly should) write a book about this man – in my opinion the best singer of popular music of all time. John Gary was an ex-Marine, held records for underwater endurance, a champion archer, a songwriter, actor and poet. Like me, he’d been singing since he was a child and, like me, he had a three octave range. His song selection and phrasing were impeccable and he could sing a line, hold the last note, and then sing another entire line without taking a breath! My parents, bless them, took me to see him perform twice and he became my role model. Until…

The Beatles. Paul McCartney is the reason I play bass. Jack Bruce and John Entwistle are the reason I play bass the way I do (“busy” I’ve been told). The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul brought me full circle to memorable songs played on acoustic guitar with remarkable harmonies. I, like many other teenagers at the time, sought to emulate The Beatles’ myriad achievements, not having a clue until much later of the staggering impossibility of that goal.

I’ve been playing bass guitar (sometimes professionally, sometimes just for fun) since I was fourteen. I’ve been in lots of bands: The Chosen Few, The Mod Set, The Rumours, Spectrum, Skyy, and probably several more whose names elude me, and have played almost every sort of gig imaginable – from private parties to school gyms and community centers, rock clubs and concert halls. In 1990, I joined an original “southern rock” band called Bandit. The lead singer and songwriter was a guy called Jeff Perkins, who wrote wonderful songs. We were together for almost ten years and recorded an EP and two CDs. Although I’ve lost touch with Jeff, I remain one of his biggest fans.

About 21 years ago I started attending renaissance festivals, and there I found people -“long haired hippie people” (like myself )- playing acoustic instruments and singing wonderful harmonies. They seemed to be truly enjoying what they were doing, as was the audience. Within a few years I was a seasoned patron, fully “garbed” and knowing all the words (and crafting harmonies) to the songs I heard at the faires.

Eventually, I decided to take a step back from the rock/blues/fusion I’d been playing for several decades and explore the roots of the music I heard at the ren fests. I discovered – in some cases rediscovered – groups such as Pentangle, Silly Wizard, Planxty and artists like Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Nic Jones and far too many more to list here. This was the music I’d been searching for all along!

Armed with a handful of traditional (and contemporary, but traditional sounding) songs, I sought out renfaire friends and put together a male/female duo which I called Wyldefyre (Martyn Wylde – Wyldefyre – you get it). In 2004 we recorded a CD in my home studio and began performing at renaissance faires, alongside the wonderful musicians who had become my friends while I was a patron. Three CDs, many faires, and several personnel changes later, Wyldefyre ended and I joined two faire veterans, Ty Billings and Jack Stamates to form Celtic Mayhem.

With Celtic Mayhem we tend to play the main stages at faires and to accommodate our rabid, boisterous following. Because of that, it’s necessary for us to play mostly the crowd pleasing drinking and sailing songs that they come to hear, keeping my solo folksinger persona in the background. We have an amazing time on stage. I truly love our fans and playing with Jack and Ty!

But I ultimately recorded a solo album, Minstrel’s Lament, to give voice to the more intimate music which is my first love. The album includes four original songs along with the traditional songs and contemporary material which I’d explored with Wyldefyre. Celtic Mayhem’s first album and mine were released on the same day in February of 2009.

Fast forward to today and I’m performing on my own and with Celtic Mayhem and working on both my second album and the band’s. The band is bringing a fresh approach to traditional music, and keeping that tradition alive, albeit with traces of rock and other genres thrown in for good measure.

My own focus is on the “folk songs of the British Isles”, bringing that music to audiences while adding my own songs to the repertoire. For me, it is not just a musical calling, but a spiritual one, as well. More on that in another post.

The new album, tentatively titled “Celtic Heart”, should be available this autumn. /|\

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