Ramblin' Jack Elliott - vocal, guitar; Jesse Ed Davis - lead guitar; Gary Gilmore - bass
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 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, 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 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 same 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. 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, flatpicking, 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 live performance recorded during the summer of 1968 at the Newport Folk Festival.
The recording begins with MC Fritz Richmond introducing Elliott to the Newport audience. One of the most gifted storytellers, this short but sweet performance begins with just that, a story song in the form of "912 Greens," which Elliott had recorded the previous year. Detailing a 1953 trip down south with two close friends (Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan), "912 Greens" chronicles their search for Bill Faier, a legendary 5-string banjo picker who they located living at 912 Toulouse Street in New Orleans.
With limited stage time, Jack makes the most of it, by continuing with a lovely reading of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and concluding with Tim Hardin's romantic "If I Was A Carpenter." Both of these numbers convey how Elliott's personality and style often influenced the writing of many of the songs he covered, with these Dylan and Hardin numbers being fine examples.
Although these last two numbers are incomplete, due to the necessity of changing tape toward the end of the Dylan cover, both are interesting performances. Despite only the last minute or so being captured of the Tim Hardin song, it conveys that even Ramblin' Jack Elliot, an established and respected member of the folk community, had begun embracing electric instrumentation. Accompanying Jack here are lead guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and bass player Gary Gilmore, both members of Taj Mahal's band at the 1968 festival.
Written by Alan Bershaw