John Renbourn was one of the founding members of the British folk band, Pentangle, a group which had a huge influence on the burgeoning international folk music scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
Renowned for his unusually sophisticated finger-style playing on the steel-stringed guitar, his music influenced a wide range of artists including Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Contemporary virtuosic players such as Clive Carroll and Andy McKee continue to acknowledge his influence.
John had links with Newcastle University's International Centre for Music Studies (ICMuS), teaching individual guitar lessons as a guest tutor and presenting masterclasses on the acclaimed Folk and Traditional Music degree, the first one of its kind in England.
After his death, two years ago, his family decided to donate the archive, which was located at his home in Roberton, near Hawick in the Scottish Borders, to Newcastle University. This collection of thousands of documents includes ensemble scores and parts, research notes, and original compositions, carefully gathered together over six decades.
It was delivered to the University in seven shipping trunks, together with a digital archive containing more than 1,500 music files. An additional collection, comprising John Renbourn's large personal library of guitar music books, is also included in this extensive donation.
Dr Mick Wright, head of guitar studies in ICMuS said: “The John Renbourn Archive is amazing, both in range and content, and is a real treasure trove for musicians and music scholars; not just for the music he’s written but also for the inspiring example of guitar scholarship that it presents.
“Looking through it you get a real sense of John's personality and his lifetime dedication to his art. Alongside the meticulously detailed work, there are fascinating and often very funny personal touches. A Brazilian classical guitar piece by Villa Lobos is autographed by John Lee Hooker, while on another document he writes a lengthy 'to do' list and adds ‘good boy, John’, at the end, as if from an imaginary schoolteacher.
“The archive exemplifies the depth and breadth of his interests, showing John's lifelong enthusiasm for the music that he was continually writing, playing, and researching. The documents cover an impressive range of styles, from Japanese koto and shakuhachi, early music, hymns and choral pieces, 19th century parlour-guitar, string quartets, arrangements of Schubert and Satie, to Celtic folk, blues, jazz, and world music.”
Dr Wright is currently finishing a preliminary assessment of the material, working his way through the archive before it is formally catalogued by the University’s Special Collections team in the Philip Robinson Library.
“Some people say never meet your heroes, because you’ll often be disappointed,” he said. “Well, I was lucky enough to meet John while he was teaching here and I was not disappointed at all. His contagious passion for music inspired everyone he met.
“John was a huge influence and presence on the acoustic guitar scene right around the world, for more than five decades, composing and touring right up until his final days. It was wonderful for our students to have such a special player teaching them. In years to come, as The John Renbourn Archive at Newcastle University becomes available to players and researchers, it will further reinforce his importance in the history of the steel-string acoustic guitar.”
John Renbourn's daughter, Jessie Alcaraz, vividly describes his energy and artistic commitment. "Music was Dad's sole occupation,” she said. “When he wasn't playing guitar he was composing, when he wasn't composing he was writing, when not writing he was reading largely about music history. Any time left was spent listening to music and on the appreciation of red wine.
“Dad is known for his playing but he also produced a huge body of composition and over time composing became his first love. From the family's perspective it was very important to us that Dad's music is made available to the musicians of the future. We are delighted that Newcastle University are taking on this archive and the future legacy of his life's work."
While Renbourn is best known for his work as a folk musician, he had mastered many styles of music and was an accomplished composer, arranger, author, and music scholar. As well as an extensive discography, he regularly published his guitar pieces and wrote articles for the music press. His teaching workshops were also an important part of his musical life.
He was meticulous in keeping his composing and arranging work in good order, and much of the preparatory work and arrangements for each of his albums, from the 1960s onward, is represented in the archive. Also included is background research for his books, and also his Dartington College thesis on the Steel-String Acoustic Guitar - an in depth study of the long known about but little researched link between the 19th century 'fandango' and the twelve bar blues.
In the 1960s his pioneering style of steel-string guitar playing was a fusion of classical 'Spanish' guitar technique, the blues styles of Big Bill Broonzy, Elizabeth Cotten and Josh White, and that of his peers such as Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, and Bert Jansch. Where Renbourn's style becomes his own is when this mixture blends with his depth of knowledge for harmony and melody, drawing as much from medieval, renaissance, and baroque music, Schubert, Satie, and hymn tunes, as from Celtic music, jazz and blues, and traditional dance tunes.
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