Jack rambles a lot, sings a little
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 12, 2003) – The one thing you can’t accuse Ramblin’ Jack Elliott of is false advertising. It says “ramblin’” right there in his name. And while he may have originally garnered the epithet in reference to his widespread travels down the highways and byways of the U.S., Central and South America and Europe, it equally applies to his idiosyncratic performance style, which consisted in large part at Club Helsinki on Thursday night of rambling, spoken-word digressions.
Storytelling was always part of the folk troubadour experience, and it certainly is a lost art. While Elliott’s rambling tangents stretch the definition of “story” or “narrative” to the breaking point, there was no denying their charm, and his charm. He is a true American original, and the club was packed tightly with people who came to get a glimpse of one of the last of a breed – the living link to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and the mid-century cowboy singers and entertainers who first inspired Elliott when he ran away from his Brooklyn home to join the rodeo at age 15.
Elliott has had his ups and downs along the way, but he seems to have weathered them pretty well. While he wasn’t the nimble flatpicker of his youth, his guitar playing was artful and effective. And while the 72-year-old singer’s voice showed signs of age, it was still a colorful instrument, its tired cracks lending a poignancy to some of the more familiar material like “San Francisco Bay Blues,” “Buffalo Skinners” and “Pastures of Plenty.”
One of Elliott’s running gags throughout the evening was about an odd pairing with Cat Stevens, who hand-picked Elliott to open up a series of concerts for him in Australia at the height of his popularity in the late 1970s. “We sat outside looking at the stars and had a conversation about outer space,” said Elliott, “and after that, things went downhill.”
Elliott talked about his fellow folksinger Derroll Adams, whose deep voice “made Johnny Cash sound like a girl,” he said. He recounted the oft-told legend about a young English schoolboy named Michael Phillip Jagger who encountered Elliott busking in a London subway station in the late 1950s, and ran home and asked his parents to buy him a guitar. Later on, the boy – his name shortened to Mick – would pay tribute to Elliott as a key, early inspiration.
His rendition of Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, “1913 Massacre,” could have served as a lesson in political protest 101 for a legion of would-be contemporary folk-protest singers, and he rendered “House of the Rising Sun” with a New Orleans flavor. He paid tribute to Leadbelly with a version of “Stewball,” and insinuated that Bob Dylan borrowed the melody of “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right)” from folksinger Eric von Schmidt.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 13, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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