By: Dennis Cook
Ramblin' Jack Elliott has been at the center of folk music since the genre's 1960s mega-explosion, and was already a well regarded figure even before that. It was Elliott that helped teach Woody Guthrie's songs to a young Bob Dylan, and it was Brooklyn born Jack who brought some trail dust into Greenwich Village, a boy inspired by the rodeos that used to come through Madison Square Garden. Fast approaching 80-years-old, he's a traditional bard, a carrier of songs from town to town, building on and honoring a long line of tunesmiths.
| Ramblin' Jack Elliott|
He's the sort of fella that can readily tell Shinola from that other stuff, and he'll let you know with a wink that he's onto you. For the past 15 years he's lived near Point Reyes in Northern California, a spot removed enough from the bright lights of San Francisco to feel some distance from modern hustle 'n' bustle, but Elliott laments, "You gotta drive about 30 miles to find a lemon." From his first job loading and unloading trucks at a lumber yard to his many adventures on sea and land, at home and abroad, Ramblin' Jack has gathered up myriad tales and melodies, and has been instrumental in passing the best ones onto future generations. There is such joy for the simple pleasures of day-to-day life in Ramblin' Jack's music, a hearty embrace of the many small things that nourish us and bring color into our hours. Even the darker moments are tied to what it means to be human and ramble around the time we're given.
His latest album, A Stranger Here (released April 7 on Anti-), is a collection of 1930s songs written during the Great Depression. Produced with great strength and delicacy by Joe Henry, it is one of Elliott's finest hours, where the years apparent in his voice wrangle with the ghosts of a vibrant saloon where everyone has scraped together their last dime for one more good time. It's an oddly modern album and a brave one from someone who could merely coast on his rep and earn his living recreating the '60s faves his audience adores. Tackling great material from Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie Johnson and Lonnie Johnson, Ramblin' Jack shows himself worthy company to these blues masters, and the crack band behind him, including guest turns from Van Dyke Parks and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, moves with sinewy perfection throughout.
In an attempt to keep the rangin' around reasonable, we've included some but not all of Jack's frequent digressions. Befitting the nickname he earned, according to legend, from Odetta's mom, a conversation with the man is a ramblin' affair. However, we did our level best to get him talking about his latest effort, his days in Greenwich Village, his influences and more. But what chat with Ramblin' Jack would be complete without a few tangents?
JamBase: I think the new album is pretty darn cool. Even though these are Depression era songs, they seem to be coming around at just the right time.
Ramblin' Jack: I didn't plan it that way. In fact, the whole idea of a collection of those songs was due to the producer [Joe Henry] and a record label guy named Andy. They put their heads together and found 15 songs and put 'em on a CD for me to listen to and pick out about 10 of the 15. Some of 'em seemed like they were going to be tough to do, others seemed plum impossible, and I didn't want to say anything. I just listened to 'em for three months, and I never memorized any of them. So, it made me quite nervous when we drove down to L.A. to record them. I didn't know anything by heart but hopefully I'd developed a little feel for them.
| Ramblin' Jack Elliott|
JamBase: In some ways that's advantageous, going in without a clear idea because a number of these tunes are so well established and so oft-covered. There's a zillion versions of "Soul Of A Man," though I think yours stands up just fine.
Ramblin' Jack: Oh yeah. Originally they wanted to use ["Soul Of A Man"] for the title of the album. I thought, "Yeah, and I'll start my own church!" It was a little bit too heavy for me.
It's daunting to get behind a pulpit. I'm not sure most of us should do it willingly.
Including myself [laughs].
This album is part and parcel of what you do. You're an interpreter and carrier of songs. You've had your ear to ground since you started, listening for songs that need to be passed along to the next generation.
I never thought about it in so many words, but it feels like that's part of it alright. I hear a lot of music that's exciting and fun and entertaining but I rarely get latched onto a song. There's so much good music out there and I enjoy hearing it, but I rarely ever want to bother to try and pick up on it.
What is it that attracts you to a song?
In the case of these songs [on A Stranger Here], I really didn't like a lot of them because I thought I wasn't capable of doing them – I didn't have enough of a voice or felt I could live up to their tough background. A singer like Blind Willie Johnson, well, I've always admired his voice and his singing but I never thought I could dare to try and interpret one of his songs. He sounds like a big, tough, hard as nails man who's seen everything AND he's blind! A lot of my favorite musicians are blind, like Rev. Gary Davis. I've toured with Reverend Davis and admire him, but I never thought I'd be able to do any of his stuff. This is the first time I've ever dared to do it. I really didn't dare to do it, I just lit into it!
| Ramblin' Jack Elliott|
When I got to the studio, there were only two musicians that I really met before and four or five that I'd never met. And they were just ready to go, and they just followed me along so well. I think they did their homework.
There's a lively sense of engagement from everyone on A Stranger Here, everybody just throwing in.
Yeah, they are! [Pauses] Excuse me for a minute. My sweetie was just trying to bring me some breakfast she just made and I told her not right now. I'll eat later or eat it cold, whatever. It looks like it's going to be a beautiful day. I was gonna take my sweetie rowing in a boat I have here but it was full of rainwater and it took me an hour to bail out. We had to go somewheres else and we didn't get to row.
So, do you feel lucky, if that's even the right word, to have picked Depression era songs given the current shambles the U.S. economy is in?
It was their suggestion and I thought I'd go along with it. These guys know what they're doing, and I respect their wisdom about what might be a good subject to address. I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I said, "Send me these songs and I'll learn 'em," which is not my usual way. But, I thought it'd be very professional and to my credit if I didn't bitch and complain and just tried to go along with their suggestion and see if I could make the best of it. And it worked!
It's arriving at just the moment that people are going to need songs about living through hard times.
That should work good for the popularity of it [laughs].
The best songs speak to truths larger than just today.
There's a lot to be said for that! My sweetie pie here is a musician, and she played me a record someone had sent her that was very popular back in the '50s. And it's in the '50s style and it's about a gal named Vickie, which is my sweetie's name. It's a cute song in a style of music you don't hear anymore. I like it because it's about my honey baby, but they sent it to her as a joke. And I thought, "That music was once popular. God, how could anybody listen to that crap?" Now, it's real cheap and tinsel-y. It was sort of like kindergarten music.
| Ramblin' Jack & Woody Guthrie by John Cohen|
In a lot of ways, popular music in America since the 1950s has played to that kind of kindergarten mentality.
That's when I left America for about six years, traveling around on a motor scooter and singing on street corners with my first wife. That was 1955-1961. I was gone for six years except for a period of 10 months in 1958 where I was back in the States.
You got to miss The Four Freshman and a lot of the other bubblegum crap that came out in the late '50s.
You know the guy from Lubbock, Texas with the black horn-rim glasses [Buddy Holly]? Well, I didn't know who he was, and I didn't know Bob Dylan. Actually hardly anybody knew him at that time, but he was hanging out in New York with a bunch of friends of mine and we were communicating by letter and postcard. But somehow the friends in the city never mentioned Bob, perhaps afraid I'd be upset or something that somebody was diggin' my potatoes. Bob was visiting Woody [Guthrie] in the hospital at that time and I knew nothing about it. When I got back to the States in November 1961, came back on a big ocean liner called The Liberte, I stayed overnight in New York City and then took a bus out to New Jersey to visit Woody in the hospital the next morning, and there was this kid Bob there. That's how I met Bob but I'd never heard about him at all. It got very hard to understand Woody as he spoke as that horrible, horrible disease [Huntington's disease] took him away. He lasted 13 years in hospitals.
I think a lot of people see you as one of the inheritors and torchbearers for Woody's legacy. Do you feel that way about it, that kind of responsibility?
I do! When I went to Europe I was mostly bringing Woody's music there. There were people, in England mostly, who'd heard of Woody and collected one or two of his records, and they were quite enthusiastic about the fact that I'd been living with and traveling with Woody. I entertained them with lots of stories about Woody and played some songs as they pulled up a chair.
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