On the Road to the Very End, A Master Departs: RIP John Renbourn

Mark Renbourn

John Renbourn - photo via The Guardian

I was standing in line outside the Cactus Café in Austin in 1993. It was a happy bunch, and a perfect evening. A couple who had come by for dinner was disappointed to be turned away. ‘What’s going on tonight?’ the woman asked. John Renbourn is going on, the stranger beside me told her. At nine o’clock.

Renbourn credit Stefan Grossman.jpg

As the couple shrugged and drifted down Guadalupe, I smiled at this fellow, who hadn’t said a word until then. “Some of us,” he said, “know who the guitar gods are.” After a wonderful first set I asked Renbourn if I could buy him a Guinness and we had a brief conversation.

He was excited about the guests for his next tour. And he was not entirely happy with his performance or his memory, suggesting he'd had to "fake" sections of a couple of songs, which would have been news to anyone else.

I asked if he could possibly play “The Black Balloon” in the next set, a long, ethereal suite that remains my favorite. “I wish,” he said. “But it’s a bit tricky; I didn‘t play it for a while and let it get away from me.”

renbourn - young.jpg

Mark Renbourn - photo via The Guardian

John Renbourn was about to wrap a tour through Scotland at the end of last month when he did not show up for a gig on March 26. He was found dead at his home in Hawick, from an apparent heart attack. He was 70.

Renbourn and jansch.jpg

He left a significant body of work. Most first heard his name when he joined fellow guitar wizard Bert Jansch to form the English group Pentangle along with singer Jaqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson, and percussionist Terry Cox.

John was a perpetual student of jazz, American blues, and classical forms, and an acolyte of much early Celtic, English, and Medieval music.

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn

Though Pentangle folded in 1973 due to the heavy pressures of constant touring, the band had cemented an American fan base by opening for the Grateful Dead at Fillmore West, playing the Newport Folk Festival, and headlining at Carnegie Hall before returning across the pond to try something new - again. ‘Same as the last’ was never the formula for Pentangle, and this was largely Jansch’s and Renbourn’s doing.

For me, however, it was John’s long string of solo albums that best showcased the creativity and versatility born of his far-ranging tastes. These were principally instrumental collections; over forty-six years he recorded twenty solo, five concert, and eleven collaborative albums. The songs ranged from John Dowland lute pieces to Charles Mingus covers, and featured many unique and evocative originals. Standouts among them include Sir John Alot, The Lady and the Unicorn, The Nine Maidens, The Hermit, A Maid in Bedlam, The Black Balloon, Traveler’s Prayer, and several fine collections in conspiracy with guitarist Stefan Grossman – recordings of special permanence and mastery.

Goodbye Porkpie Hat (John with Stefan Grossman deliver the Monk)

In the early 1980s, by then considered a past master among guitarists, he enrolled in a three-year music composition course at Darlington College in England. The perpetual student was invited in 1988 to join the faculty there, and head up the first degree course in steel-string guitar. There couldn’t have been a better measure of the lasting importance of John Renbourn’s gifts and commitment, or a more suitable honor. “He was a huge character,” his manager Dave Smith said. “He was always playing and teaching. That is what he loved doing and he never stopped.” Raise a glass of Guinness then. RIP John.

Sweet Potato

Mark Smith is a Writing Tutor at two Dallas-area colleges, and before that was a goldsmith and stone-setter. He has also been writing songs and playing guitar since high school.

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