On Saturday morning, March 28, 2015, the “Today’s Headlines” email that I receive from The New York Times delivered this very sad news: “John Renbourn, Eclectic Guitarist Who Founded the Pentangle, Dies at 70.”
According to the obituary by Jon Pareles, John Renbourn – “an English guitarist known for his light-fingered fusion of classical, folk, blues and jazz” – was found dead on Thursday, March 26, at his home in Harwick, Scotland, after he failed to show up for a concert in Glasgow on the 25th. Upon further investigation, it was determined that Renbourn had suffered a heart attack.
I offer this post about John Renbourn in tribute not only to the guitarist whose many, truly remarkable recordings have so enriched my life, but also to the teacher who pointed me towards outposts in the world of guitar that I still explore and that I would otherwise, possibly, never have found.
I first learned about John Renbourn from an article in the April, 1979 issue of Guitar Player magazine.
The article, written by Jas Obrecht, one of Guitar Player’s assistant editors at that time, was based on an extensive interview with the British fingerstyle steel-string guitarist.
From Mr. Obrecht’s piece, I learned that John Renbourn was born in 1944. (August 8, 1944, in Marylebone, London, England, to be precise.) John got his first guitar – a pink, acoustic “Wonder” guitar – when he was 13 years old and enthralled by the film exploits of Roy Rogers, the American singing cowboy. Something called the “skiffle craze” sustained John’s interest in playing guitar until, at the age of 15, he started taking what would turn into two years of formal Classical guitar lessons. John also, at this time, tried his hand at playing some “things” by the American Blues guitarist, Big Bill Broonzy.
In the early 1960’s, while attending the Kingston Art School, John took up the electric guitar and played in a Blues band known as “Hogsnort Rupert And His Famous Porkestra.” In 1964, John moved to London, returned to the acoustic guitar, landed some gigs in the local Folk clubs and met fellow acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Bert Jansch.
I further learned that John Renbourn’s recording career started in 1965 with the release of his first album, John Renbourn on Transatlantic Records. A duet album with Jansch came out in 1966 followed by John’s second solo album, Another Monday in 1967.
More importantly, also in 1967, John and Bert – along with vocalist Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Terry Cox – formed a band they called “Pentangle.” Pentangle achieved international success, toured Europe and the U.S. several times and released six albums before disbanding in 1973. (You might remember their version of “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses.”)
Mr. Obrecht’s lengthy article also informed me about John Renbourn’s numerous other recordings; including his 1968 solo album, Sir John Alot of Merry Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte,
and an album of duets that he did in 1978 with American guitarist Stefan Grossman for Kicking Mule Records.
Finally, Mr. Obrecht described the scope of John Renbourn’s music as ranging from “refined Folk to Blues, Ragtime, Jazz, Ballads and Pavanes.” He followed that description with this quote from John: “I see no reason why any good music should be separated, or that people should become specialists. I listen to absolutely everything and I suppose I learn a little bit from it all.”
I started learning from John Renbourn thanks to a monthly column that he wrote for Frets – The Magazine For Acoustic String Musicians. John’s column, called “Fingerstyle Guitar,” debuted in the publication’s June, 1988 issue. The magazine credited John as being “a seminal figure on the international fingerstyle guitar scene since the early ’60’s.”
From that very first column, I learned all about Lonnie Donegan and the “skiffle craze” that had so inspired the young John Renbourn.
I also learned about the many American Folk and Blues musicians – Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Peggy Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten, among them – whose music fueled the players – Davey Graham, Wizz Jones, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy and Renbourn, to name a few – who were the fingerstyle guitar scene in Britain in the 1960’s.
In future columns, John Renbourn introduced me to many wonderful pieces of music for the acoustic guitar such as:
“Anji” – Davey Graham’s signature guitar piece, most famously recorded by Bert Jansch.
“Kemps’ Jig” and “House Carpenter” – two old, traditional melodies from Great Britain arranged by Renbourn to be played using DADGAD tuning (an alternate guitar tuning credited to Davey Graham),
“Merrily Kissed The Quaker” – a pipe tune played in EADEAE tuning, a guitar tuning developed by Martin Carthy.
(Every column included a complete transcription of that month’s featured piece presented in both standard musical notation and guitar tablature.)
After Frets bid farewell with its August, 1989 issue, John Renbourn soon set up shop in Guitar Player magazine, making regular contributions throughout the early 1990’s to a column first called “Steel-String Acoustic,” and then just “Steel String.”
Through the “Steel String” columns from those years, I learned about the popular late-19th century American Folk guitar style known as “parlor guitar.”
The transcriptions of parlor guitar music that John Renbourn presented to me in those Guitar Player columns included:
“Spanish Fandango” – played using open G tuning (DGDGBD), transcribed in arrangements by Henry Worrall and John Dilleshaw, and found in the repertoire of Elizabeth Cotten.
“Po’ Howard” as played by Huddie Ledbetter,
“Sebastopol” – also by Henry Worrall but played in open E tuning (EBEG#BE), and
“The Blarney Pilgrim” – an Irish dance tune (I guess he couldn’t resist) in the open G tuning of “Spanish Fandango.”
Besides writing about and arranging “old” music for the steel string guitar, John Renbourn composed “new” pieces of music for the instrument as well. From the seven originals on his first album to the six originals on his last album – 2011’s Palermo Snow – John wrote and recorded dozens of acoustic guitar instrumentals in a variety of styles over the course of his long career. His 1988 LP, The Nine Maidens, contained only Renbourn originals.
My favorite John Renbourn composition is called “Buffalo.” It was first released on the Another Monday album, but I discovered this jaunty, Blues-based number on a 1985, 2-record set on the British Cambra Sound label called Renbourn and Jansch.
I learned how to play “Buffalo” with the help of a taped guitar lesson (I’m talking cassette tape here. Remember those?) that I purchased from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, a New York-based mail-order company.
The Lesson was #1 in a series called The Guitar of John Renbourn – taught by John Renbourn. The audio recording on the cassette tape was of John Renbourn himself (!) first playing “Buffalo,” then teaching – discussing, breaking down, explaining, slowly demonstrating, gradually reconstructing – this instrumental to the carefully listening student.
It seems to be quite appropriate that the only video I can find on YouTube of “Buffalo” to share with you is one in which John Renbourn is heard and shown playing and teaching the piece.
Even if you don’t play the guitar, I think you will enjoy spending a few minutes in the company of the master.
For your additional listening pleasure, here is “Snap A Little Owl,” my favorite track from Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn.
I will be forever grateful to John Renbourn for teaching me that developing an appreciation of the music and players of the past as well as the music being created by the innovative practitioners of today is an essential ingredient in the musical journey of every guitarist.
I only wish that I had been blessed with the opportunity to say “Thank you” to him in person.