You’re a Scandinavian TV crew making a documentary about the British folk revival. You have a chance to alight in London at any point during the 60s and grab as much footage as you can over a few days. Where do you alight your Tardis? It’s a tough choice. By the law of averages there must have been a night when Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank both played at legendary all-night folk hole Les Cousins. That would be pretty special. Or the time Bert Jansch and Transatlantic Records’ Nat Joseph were entrusted with the job of taking a visiting Bob Dylan to Ewan MacColl’s folk club (and later thrown out for making too much noise). It’s a tough call.
This must surely run it close though. In 1967, Denmark’s Folksanger programme arrived in the West End and, much as any documentary makers would have done in a pre-internet age, would have followed a few leads, elicited a couple of recommendations and descended on a couple of likely venues. By any criteria, they didn’t do at all badly. Yes, there’s a good reason why Marc Sullivan, the dark-haired American guy doing a passable version of Woody Guthrie’s Hard Travelin’, didn’t go on to greater things. Neither does it do him any favours that he thinks Bob Dylan invented topical songwriting.
Setting him aside though, the rest is frankly incredible. Already an established draw in 1967, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick inadvertently illustrate the flexibility of this folk revival by tackling a song whose origins sit firmly outside of it. The pair would have almost certainly first heard I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me on Peter Sellers’ 1959 album Songs For Swinging Sellers. They address each other like two cooing lovebirds by way of Noel Coward, camping it up in a manner that suggests they don’t care what this tells Denmark about the British folk boom.
London looks amazing in the outdoor footage, Carnaby Street so drenched in period detail, it looks like an ersatz reconstruction of its mythical self. For some reason, shoppers are caught from the waist down as Penny Lane plays in the background. Impeccably tailored trouser legs point forward like the beaks of exotic birds. West End strip joints cry out for the accompaniment of Bert Jansch’s Soho, released a few months previously on the album he made with John Renbourn, Bert & John. But in the light of what’s to come, that’s nitpicking.
Here they are. First John, in his natural habitat, making light work of I Know My Babe from his second album Another Monday. Then we get to see a little history being made. In what appears to be their shared St John’s Wood flat, Bert and John face each other and work out – possibly even improvise – a new composition. If you had everything they’d recorded at that point, you wouldn’t have recognised it. Between them, on the settee, there’s a woman immersed in today’s crossword. Anne Briggs perhaps? Her apparent indifference to what’s going on around her, coupled with her frequent presence in that house at this time suggests it might be. Whatever, you can’t help but be impressed by this show of bohemian insouciance. In 1967, most people would never have even seen a camera crew, let alone been the object in focus.
Interviewed a few minutes later, Bert reveals: “As far as myself is concerned, I’ve just formed a band – which comprises of drums, bass and two guitars and all sorts of singers, playing music which we like… which derives from all sources…. Some will be worked out. Some will be improvised.” The song being improvised was given a name, as was the band. Bells resurfaced a few months later, as the second track on Pentangle’s eponymous debut album The Pentangle.