Ramblin Jack Elliott, my missing link

November 26, 2008

I just watched a life-changing video (for me, not necessarily for you): THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT. Just as scientists posit the existence of celestial bodies, or elements, or forces in nature by their INFLUENCE on things around them, I have realized the amazing influence of Jack Elliott on both the musical world and upon me.

As I listened to his songs I kept thinking “early Dylan.” And, no, it’s that early Dylan was under the influence of Jack Elliott. One of Dylan’s earliest concerts was advertised as “Jack Elliott’s Son” which Jack took as a compliment. But later, when people accused him of sounding like Dylan, he was hurt. When his old close friend Woody Guthrie died, he was not invited to the Carnegie Hall all-star tribute to his old friend. He resolved to play outside as people arrived to the concert. Ultimately he joined the group and his contribution was a highlight of the evening.

Jack Elliott’s picking style of playing the guitar is the style I sought out as a guitarist. It wasn’t Dylan, or McGuinn, or Doc Watson, or Chris Hillman, or Donovan, or Stephen Stills, or John Lennon, or David Bromberg, it was Jack Elliott. I have sought out the “Jack Elliott-ness” in American folk traditions, not knowing that it was Jack Elliott who introduced this technique. He went to London and was heard by all the early British rock band guitarists. They all imitated his technique, and it morphed into many electric guitar playing styles over the following decades.

Jack’s problem is that he was a wanderer. A space case. Interested in more than just being a famous folk musician, he was a rodeo aficionado, a sailor, and a traveler. He did not have the focus necessary to become a famous artist in the public eyes. The young Robert Hilburn wrote that Elliott was a folk musician’s folk musician. I feel the same way about Alexander Scriabin — he is a composer’s composer, but not terribly popular with the masses. Through using them as his manager and reality interface coordinator, Jack “used up” [his words] three wives and is now happily married to his fourth.

The video clip below shows Jack singing the 1944 Woody Guthrie song “TALKING SAILOR.” In it you hear Woody, AND early Dylan. Like Bono, he knows how to look into a camera and touch the audience through the lens.

Now listen to Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York” from his first album. You hear the clear lineage of Woody Guthrie to Jack Elliott and then to Dylan.

For enthusiasts of American folk music from the 40s to the early 70s, THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT is a must see video. It is filmed by his daughter, and those seams, defects, or qualities show throughout. I enjoyed the personal hand-held unfinished business that she brought to the project.

Jack Elliott is a living legend.

Thank you Jack. You have touched and changed the world.

And to close, here is a video that has (in a reverse influential description) a strong John Sebastian delivery, the spirit of The Band (Robbie Robertson et al), a skosh of Dillard and Clark, the dionysian part of Gram Parsons, a more up tempo Rolling Stones metabolism, the spirit of Texas rock, and a different direction that country rock didn’t quite embrace.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brad Wood November 26, 2008 at 11:22 pm

I’d heard about Elliott for years, how influential he was yada yada, but never heard the man. Thanks for that!

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