Ramblin Jack Elliott - guitar, vocals
Possibly the world's most legendary troubadour, Ramblin' Jack Elliott is one of the last surviving links to the great folk traditions of America. With a life spent traveling, performing, and recording, Elliot has endured as one of the most colorful and oddball characters in all of American music. Born in 1931 as Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn, New York, he became enamored with westerns as a child, regularly attending rodeos, devouring books by cowboy novelist Will James, and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. At the age of 14, Elliott ran away from home and hitchhiked to Washington, DC, where he discovered Colonel Jim Eskew's traveling rodeo. Landing a $2 a day job grooming animals, Elliott also learned to play guitar from the rodeo clowns before his worried parents finally caught up with him three months later and persuaded him to return home. He tried to appease his parents by returning to school, but continued to fantasize about the cowboy life. Following his high school graduation and between two failed attempts at college, he began performing around New York's Greenwich Village. In 1950, at the age of 19, Elliott discovered Woody Guthrie while listening to Oscar Brand's radio program, an event that would forever change his life. Determined to learn from him firsthand, Elliott paid a visit to Guthrie's home where he wound up living for two years, absorbing Guthrie's style of singing and his guitar technique. Over the course of the next several years, Elliott traveled and performed with Guthrie, meeting many left-wing artists along the way and becoming personal friends with many of the key Beat poets and writers, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
During the mid-1950s, Elliott relocated to England and became a hit in Europe before returning to New York City's Greenwich Village folk scene in 1957 and recording his debut album, Woody Guthrie's Blues, that same year. By the early 1960s, Elliott had developed into a fine flat-picking guitarist and his twangy, unapologetically aggressive style and cutting sense of humor made him one of the shining lights of the rapidly developing folk scene, although he never confined himself to the folk genre. Much like Guthrie had mentored Elliott, now Elliott was mentoring a new generation of folksingers, including a young Bob Dylan, who was another Guthrie disciple. Elliott not only encouraged Dylan but also helped shaped his repertoire, flat-picking, and vocal style at the time. Just as Elliott had once been dubbed "a poor man's Guthrie," Dylan, likewise, was identified as "a poor man's Elliott," before his own style began surfacing.
Over the course of the next half century, Elliott would continue traveling, performing and recording, influencing countless other musicians along the way. Many assume his title of "Ramblin' Jack" was in reference to his relentless traveling, but in actuality this was awarded to Elliott for his tendency toward stage banter. He would often ramble on through various topics and stories before arriving at a point during his song introductions. This made Ramblin' Jack Elliott's live performances far more engaging and considerably warmer than his studio recordings. Which brings us to this remarkable live performance recorded during the summer of 1963 at Ed Pearl's legendary Ash Grove, the West Coast epicenter of the folk and blues scene.
On a night that also included Bess Hawes and Frank Price, Ramblin' Jack Elliott begins his set with an engaging take on the traditional English folk song "The Cuckoo." Staying close to the instantly recognizable melody, he sings this classic tale of the roving gambler in his earnest, yet laid back manner. On the next two numbers he veers into vintage blues territory. This begins with a compelling rendition of Jimmie Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out," a blues standard popularized by Bessie Smith, the preeminent female blues singer of the 1920s and 30s. Elliott's relaxed approach makes this song work exceedingly well in a folk-song context, and features some fine flat-picking. Here he sings from the perspective of a poverty-stricken ex-millionaire during the Prohibition era, reflecting on friendships that come and go and the fleeting nature of material wealth. Another interesting take on the blues follows, as Elliott performs his variation on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Match Box Blues," a song also revamped by Carl Perkins into his rockabilly hit, "Matchbox." Elliott's version doesn't stray so far from the Jefferson's original and showcases his sharp, piercing vocal and fluid flat-picking.
Elliott next sings a song he hadn't performed for a while, "Boll Weevil," one of the traditional folk ballads on his live album recorded at the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia the previous year. Following a brief monologue about soon traveling to Scotland, Elliott pays tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, who taught him the next number, "Stackerlee." Known by many titles and recorded in hundreds of variations, Elliott sings the tale of Lee Shelton, the St. Louis "bad man" convicted of murdering Billy Lyons on Christmas Eve in 1895.
Obliging a request of an audience member, Elliott begins winding his set to a close with one of the more popular story-telling songs of the era, a cover of Jimmy Driftwood's country classic, "Tennessee Stud." Taking it nice and easy and performing all the verses, he leaves the Ash Grove audience shouting for more. He ends the performance with Woody Guthrie's "Talking Dustbowl Blues." On this talking blues, one can most clearly hear Elliott's strong influence on the young Bob Dylan. Amidst the superb flat-picking and Guthrie-esque lyrics, Elliott conjures up the plight of the Southern and Great Plains farmers who ventured west during droughts and the Great Depression.
Three incomplete fragments are included as outtake tracks at the end. These include the joyous "Sadie Brown," which features some of Elliott's infectious yodel inflected singing, the very tail end of a raucous "Fare Thee Well" and a humorous monologue about two Martians that is unfortunately truncated by the tape stock running out—but not before a few good laughs ensue.
Written by Alan Bershaw