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, Elliott 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 by 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, D.C., 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 friends with many of the key Beat poets and writers including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg 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 year. By the early 1960s, Elliott had developed into a fine 'flatpicking' 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. Like Guthrie had mentored Elliott, Elliott was now mentoring a new generation of folk singers including a young Bob Dylan who was another Guthrie disciple. Elliott not only encouraged Dylan but also helped shaped his repertoire, his 'flatpicking' technique, and vocal style. Just as Elliott had once been dubbed a poor man's Guthrie, Dylan 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, recording, and ultimately, influencing countless other musicians. Many assume his moniker of 'Ramblin' Jack' was about his relentless traveling, but in actuality was attributed 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 Elliott's live performances far more engaging and considerably warmer than his studio recordings, and it brings us to this remarkable live performance recorded in 1964 at Ed Pearl's legendary Ash Grove -- the West Coast epicenter of the folk and blues scene. This performance not only contains choice selections from Elliott's late 1950s/early 1960s albums and songs that went unrecorded during this prime era but plenty of the humorous banter he is known for. There's an emphasis on the blues in this set but Elliott also mixes in a little country and traditional folk music. 'Dylanologists' are also in for a special treat as he is in a particularly humorous form regarding Bob Dylan.
As the recording begins, with "Bed Bug Blues," a humorous track from Elliott's 1958 album Jack Takes The Floor, is well underway. He follows with another blues number which shows off his whistling skills. As an aside, he informs the Ash Grove audience his whistling is only a result of lending Dylan his harmonica rack and Dylan never returning it! For the next number, Elliott veers into some Mississippi Delta blues with an engaging version of "Lonesome Road Blues." Younger listeners may recognize this as "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad," which shares the same basic structure, several of the verses, and the "I don't want to be treated this-a-way" refrain.
For his next number, Elliott delivers a choice selection from his 1962 Country Style LP with a performance of the Jimmy Driftwood ballad "Tennessee Stud." A fine example of his 'flatpicking' skills surfaces next with "Call Me A Dog," followed by a rendition of Elizabeth Cotton's classic "Freight Train." However, the most delightful sequence of this set is the last five numbers which begins with Elliott in silly form on a rewrite of one of Dylan's most serious songs of that era, "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll." This is better heard than described, but suffice it to say the more familiar you are with Dylan's original the funnier you'll find this. This comical diversion is followed by a Zulu children's song, "Guabi, Guabi," with a wonderful melody and memorable guitar fingerpicking. A traditional South African song, Elliott is largely responsible for popularizing this number within the folk music community.
The last three numbers veer back into the blues and all three are compelling. Elliott's rendition of the Reverend Gary Davis classic "Candy Man," is followed by an engaging tribute to one of his mentors with "Blind Lemon." The set wraps up with 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 more of his fine 'flatpicking.' He sings from the perspective of a poverty-stricken, ex-millionaire during Prohibition; reflecting on friendships that come and go and the fleeting nature of material wealth. (Bershaw)