A good deal of what I play has been the result of listening and learning from other musically inclined types. I’ve made a lot of friends along the way and music has proved more than enough to captivate my simple mind. I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with kindred spirits since stepping out into the world, well, before even — just about all the family played something and sang, that was the norm. About the earliest ventures away from home must have been the premiere performance of The Black Cats Woodyard Skiffle Band at the Frimley Darby and Joan. 1956 would be my guess. Through skiffle, blues was in the air — R n’ B was the next step along the teenage path. I don’t know of any photos of Hog-Snort Rupert’s Famous Porkestra but Rupe gets mentioned in at least two books — London’s Rock Routes and Guildford The Rock n’ Roll Years.
When the Porkestra came to the end of the line it was a matter of heading off with the £5 Scarth — arriving in Brixham South Devon and meeting up with MacMcleod. Mac was playing his guitar in a grungy dockside cider bar, surrounded by girls. He seemed like someone to get to know and we’ve been friends ever since. Recently some tapes of the two of us have surfaced with 1961/62 marked on the box. Maybe it was.
The quest to survive without succumbing to a proper job led to Kingston Art School and friendship with one of the models Gina Glazer. Gina sang beautifully and player guitar. 5-string banjo and dulcimer. She’d been with Paul Clayton and Liam Clancy on collecting trips in Appalachia and knew some of the best versions of traditional songs.
When Sandy Denny joined the Art School Gina was an important influence on her early development too
Art studies, or lack of them, led to sitting around Kingston with other similarly dispossessed characters, some of whom claimed things were better over in France. A nice myth as I found out. One old friend Ayliffe who did in fact apply his art skills, he was a pavement artist, came back from Paris looking relatively affluent. This miraculous turn of fortune could only be attributed to one thing. He’d teamed up with Jacqui McShee. Jacqui was just wonderful, she could sing old British ballads and down-home blues with equal conviction. We played together regularly down at The Cousins before going on to form Pentangle.
Paying gigs were few and far between in the early ’60s. Folk clubs were starting up all over but scruffy guitar pickers were unwelcome to put it mildly. One guy who was so good he’d carved out his own niche though was Gerry Lockran. He was a great player and a great guy who took me under his wing and gave me a platform.
Gerry used to play at the old Roundhouse on Wardour street which is where I met Dorris Henderson. Dorris was the real deal, her daddy was the Reverend Hankerson with a big ministry in Watts and her uncle was Guitar Nubbit of ‘Georgia Chain Gang’ fame. She covered gospel and blues and all points in between. I was knocked for a loop. We travelled and recorded and even held down a regular spot on a long forgotten TV show.
It was with Dorris on a night out in Soho that we encountered Bert rallying his forces outside the Scot’s Hoose. That meeting led to sharing a succession of abodes in north London. Bert’s playing was in a league of its own, influenced by the great bluesmen as well as our mutual idol Davey Graham, but still unique. That was a productive time. We recorded for the fledgling Transatlantic company, tried stuff out down at the Cousins, and our ideas rolled into the formation of Pentangle.
Pentangle was pretty much it from ’68 to ’72. Terry Cox and Danny Thompson had worked together in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated which was the house band for the TV show that Dorris appeared on, so we knew each other from that. Pentangle got me to America for the first time — the year of the moon landing, 1969. Seems like it was one tour after another after that.
It was through Danny that I got to know Tony Roberts. They were playing together with John McLaughlin in a ground-breaking trio. Robbo’s ideas totally eclipsed anything I’d been able to dream up so far, or even now for that matter, and when Pentangle disbanded I wound up following him down to the West Country. That’s where the John Renbourn Group for want of a better, or in fact any, name came together. The group never set out to be a travelling band. Quite the opposite — it was music for kitchen and cabbage patch.
Sue Draheim was from Oakland outside San Francisco. She played great old-time fiddle and helped me out on Faro Annie. She had also learned directly from Joe Cooley and could play perfectly in the old West Clare style. I found out more about Irish music from Sue than I could ever have imagined.
Tabla player Keshav Sathe came from the Mahavashtva region of western India. When we met he was playing with John Mayer’s Indo Jazz Fusions. Tablas were ideal for some of the irregular time patterns in our music and Kesh was spot-on. We had some good times together when the group got lured back on the road.
By the mid-seventies things had picked up in France. Paris became a regular haunt. Long time friend Remy Froissart had a place there in the rue Pelican — hence the title of one of my pieces. Remy compiled the first book of transcriptions of Bert and myself. We now get together for guitar workshops in sunny climes.
Another Paris compatriot is Dominique Trepeau. Dom contributed his fine piece Caroline’s Tune to ‘The Hermit.’ He also saw fit to address the omission of tablature in my first book — an oversight on my part. The photo is fairly recent. ‘Haven’t changed a bit’ comes to mind.
Stefan Grossman arrived in London in the late ‘sixties in the wake of a big reputation but it wasn’t until the late ‘seventies that we played together on a regular basis. We covered a lot of miles as a touring duo and were documented on a number of live and studio recordings.
Isaac Guillory was playing in London around the time Pentangle was on the go. He was a hell of a player. I liked to listen to him in a little band with Mox the harmonica player from Cousin’s days. We hooked up in the ‘eighties when he was living in Newcastle and started touring on a regular basis. Ike had a hip take on harmony and his approach to
its application on the fretboard is a valuable resource that is now up on the web. By my slipshod standards he came across as something of a perfectionist. In order to get a good sound in the places we were playing he took to carrying his own custom designed P.A. He also liked to travel in a cool little car. P.A.s into cool little cars don’t go and often the audience would wait around to witness the load up — the final touch being Ike sliding in like the last man in the space shuttle and driving away. Like me a lot of people miss him.
Ship of Fools was formed for a concert in New York’s Central Park in the summer of 1987. Steve was an old friend who’d been given the Transatlantic treatment and lived to tell the tale and Maggie, who’s family were from Donegal, had been taught by traditional singer Oliver Mulligan. The concert was fun and we stuck together for a few tours and one album.
It was Bert who told me about Archie Fisher. He talked a lot about him and Bert didn’t normally talk a lot. If anyone actually taught Bert to play it was Archie. We happened to find ourselves neighbors out in the Scottish Borders — in Archie’s description ” only about a gun shot away .” The ‘nineties saw us doing road trips across America. What a treat to play along on his superb arrangements. Somehow or other Archie got me on to one of his horses. How I ever got off is still a mystery.
I’d crossed paths with Robin Williamson way back in Edinburgh. The String Band and Pentangle came into focus at pretty much the same time and we didn’t actually play together until most of the hoopla had died down. We were both living out on the American West Coast when we did, but regular touring covered Britain and a fair amount of Europe. With an inventory of harp, fiddles, mandolin, whistles, pipes, mandola and guitars it had it’s moments — The Impenetrable Stringtangle on the road. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ got a Grammy nomination and stacks of live recordings still await investigation.
Clive ‘The Kid’ Carroll was a young player I ran into at a pub gig out in east London. What a monster. I’m still hoping to catch up with some of his ideas. We survived American tours that took us down to South Texas and up into the Appalachians. Also survived the rigors of composing film music together — something that seems to have its own built-in complexities.
Along with Davey, Wizz Jones was a guy we all thought great right from the beginning — flatpicking and fingerpicking. It was through my floundering attempt to hitch down to Cornwall to hear him that I wound up in Brixham, thinking I’d arrived. I’ve contributed guitar parts to some of Wizz’s recordings and even got the production chair for ‘Right Now’
But it wasn’t until last year that we got serious about working together. What we’ve done so far has been pure joy. Or will be when we get paid.