The Album List: # 199 Pentangle “Basket of Light”

The skies are full of diamonds…

My slavish devotion to the English Folk revival has had me waxing poetic about other albums like this and this and even this . I’m a sucker for strumming and picking and songs about going all around hats, Greensleeves, Lord Randall and stuff. Pentangle had an ace up its sleeve, though, in guitarist Bert Jansch. An amazing guitarist, he almost exclusively played acoustic, and was astonishing in his talent for it.

Pentangle had two neo folkies (Jansch and fellow guitarist John Renbourne), two jazz enthusiasts ( bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox), and a pretty, fey blonde girl with a sweet voice (Jacqui McShee).  They typified the folk jazz style that would continue through the 1970s, and became the cliché of what a folk band looked and sounded like. It’s a shame, because their recorded output is fantastic.

By taking folk songs and giving them jazz phrasing, Pentangle added another layer to two specialized genres, bringing both to a new audience. Diverging from the McColl-Seeger school and ignoring the repressive Cecil Sharpe ideal, Pentangle made folk fresh, meeting the more celebrated Fairport Convention in terms of both talent and progressiveness.

It’s a delicate balancing act, and the music is highly innovative. Time signatures are unusual, chord progressions go to unexpected places, McShee’s voice lightly caresses melody and the harmonies provided by the guys ground her wispy but solid vocals. Jansch and Renbourne completely reinvent folk guitar in the space of the genre itself (Richard Thompson would expand the language, giving Fairport more to play with- Jansch in particular stayed within the rules of folk while completely rewriting them). It was the rhythm section that made them soar- Thompson’s bass work is of particular quality. His beloved double bass centres the music beautifully.

Also impressive are the songs on this album. There are your classic traditional songs like “Once I Had A Sweetheart”, “Lyke Wake Dirge”, and “The Cuckoo”. But my favourite is a cover of the one hit wonder girl group the Jaynette’s classic “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”. The original is magnificent, a superior example of girl group doom and gloom only topped by the Shangri-las. In the hands of Renbourne and McShee, it becomes somewhat hypnotic. They don’t change it up all that significantly- the tempo isn’t that far off from the original’s, there is no flights of fancy musically. It’s a captivating cover, one of the single greatest covers in music history. I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

There is a soothing quality I find in folk music- it’s comforting to me to here something like “Lyke Wake Dirge” when I feel the need for a spiritual recharge. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan changed the meaning of folk music, the language of folk music, the sound of folk music. They gave other musicians permission to expand it, to take it out of the past and give it a future. Bands like Pentangle honoured the spirit of the history of folk while making it sound new.  Songs like these would have fallen off the radar even further, and eventually they would have been lost to the larger world.

And of course, I will leave you with the late, great Bert Jansch, solo, playing Davy Graham’s “Angie”.


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