Ramblin’ Jack Elliott follows his musical trail to where it goes.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott came by his name because of his knack for stringing songs and stories together in an endless meandering river of native genius, or because he travels a lot. Take your pick; either story could be true, depending on who’s telling it.
I developed my own theory about Jack’s nickname 25 years ago, while watching him play in a bar in Santa Cruz. I thought it was obvious then, and listening to his stunning new album, I Stand Alone, it’s still right there.
Listen to how he strums and picks with such graceful disregard for strict rules of meter. Listen to the way he sings, in a voice alternately frail and bold, with such loyalty to the words, the feelings, the song, and not to the placement of notes on a chart or scale (or even a key).
Listen, on the ode to a favorite dog, “Old Blue,” how he sweetly howls the chorus, letting his breath determine the interval, or on “Arthritis Blues,” as David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) tries valiantly to lay an accordion harmony alongside Jack’s twisty melody. That’s ramblin’.
When he invented it 50 years ago with his traveling pal Woody Guthrie, American folk music was a revolution of honesty and natural beauty thrown in the face of an uptight, ossified world of stiffs, and it still is. Jack’s contribution to the cause was his organic and loose-limbed musical approach as well as his love for the songs he found on the backroads of the American musical landscape. He taught these things to the young Bob Dylan and to generations of players since, including a new generation of folksingers, who will join him this weekend in Big Sur, a week after his 75th birthday. (Oops. Wasn’t supposed to tell you that.)
RAMBLIN’ SECRET COWBOY SURPRISE, a folksinger who looks and sounds exactly like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, plays Quiet Quiet Forest Spectrum Friday, Aug. 11, at 6:20pm.