Photo by Ann K. Peterson
At 83, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott might be shrinking a tad — there didn’t seem too much there under the long, gray curls, the big cowboy hat and the sturdy old guitar Friday night at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall.
Ah, but that leaves the timeless charm, the cavernous memory and the storytelling way with songs, and the twisting tales between them. All that still oozes at a steady, impressible rate, like Vesuvius set on medium flow. And truth is, the man’s physical bearing still radiates smart charisma, in a sly smile, a mock-heroic pose, and a face that vividly collapses into a lifetime of memories and feelings.
He opened with what sounded like a secularized rendition of the old, dark spiritual “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” After the applause he muttered, “You’re not supposed to clap at that.”
So a packed house embarked on a mine-filled journey, even if at times the anecdotal tributaries seemed to outrun the songs. But following-him-where-he-may-go is a big part of the appeal and adventure of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performance.
Through his long career, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has traveled far in song, story and distance. Photo courtesy of gbae.org.
You encounter moments like when Elliott stopped smack in the middle of a song line — to ostensibly talk about the song — but then led us on a picaresque journey, the song left unfinished. Maybe on his next time through.
He told about being on the road in 1954 with a 20-years-elder Woody Guthrie, stopping in Woody’s hometown of Kansas City, where Woody ironically got abused by someone who recognized him, while Jack slept in the car. But the young Elliott was blessed, he claims. “I didn’t have pimples as a teenager. Back then I did everything backwards.”
We heard the tangled tale about the rodeo clown who gave him his first cigar for fifty-five cents, and somehow persuaded him to go back to high school, and then college, which he got partly through. Yet Jack roundaboutly ended up in “a stolen whale ship boat going down the Thames River.”
“Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie,” 1961. Photo by John Cohen, courtesy of nyphotoreview.com
Or there was the Guthrie naval story about his ship being torpedoed by German U-boats, but Woody manages to save his slogan-branded guitar and his fiddle. That did lead logically to Guthrie’s song “Talking Sailor”:
“This convoys the biggest I ever did see/it stretches all the way out across the Sea…Look out, you Fascists!/I’m just one of the merchant crew/
I belong to the union called the N.M.R./I’m union man from head to toe/I’m USA and CIO/fighting out here on the waters/when some freedom. On the land.”
Such unvarnished Guthrie politics seems anachronistic in an era where union power seems perpetually under the capitalist boot. And Elliott, virtually a pure song interpreter, seems out of step, too, when every person today with a guitar and two lungs seems also a self-proclaimed “songwriter.”
Do we ever need a guy like Ramblin’ Jack, who seems to have most of America’s folk song history in the tattered backpack of his brain. So this crowd waited for each transporting turn though time.
Photo of Jack Elliott courtesy tadd.txt-nifty.com
We heard the old Roy Acuff train song in which, before starting in the wrong key, Jack finally hit the track and his careening falsetto caught the train’s long, lonesome whistle, like a bird soaring into a slipstream.
At this point in his career, besides his set break, Elliott turns the mic over for one song to his Tim Grimm, who offered a song mythologizing the storied folksinger for whom he has served as a driver for, due to Grimm’s high regard for the aging legend. But first, Grimm fiddled with Jack’s instrument for a moment, then asked him, “Do you ever tune this guitar?”
From a spot near the men’s room door, Jack demurred, “It was in tune when I bought it.”
Of course, Elliott’s musical meanderings inevitably led to Bob Dylan, whom he once influenced, and who, after hearing Jack perform Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” said, “I’m relinquishing the song do you, Jack.” So Elliott did it in the voices of several different people – slipping in and out of nasal mimics of Dylan at pointed spots in the trademark song of sullied romance.
And yet he also flipped to Dylan’s bright side, with a pulsing version “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
Jack Elliott (right) with Bob Dylan and John Sebastian in the heady musical days of Greenwich Village in 1964. Photo courtesy the worldsamess.blogspot.com
By contrast, his riveting rendition of Merle Travis’ classic mining song “Dark as a Dungeon” proved even more harrowing than his recording of it with Guy Clark — here a focused mini-opera with noirish shades of fear, blackness, rain and measured nuance.
Elliott’s career has been too shambling to ever court commercial success. But eventually he’s gained recognition, from Dylan’s recollections in his biographical book Chronicles, to a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Song album in 1995 for South Coast, the National Medal of the Arts in 1998, and another Grammy, for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2009 for A Stranger Here.
Through it all at Shank Hall, Elliott’s guitar playing still bounced and crackled just enough to keep each song moving smartly. Of course, there was always another story to subvert his own music-making.
“Did you hear about the time I landed the space shuttle in Dakar? They said it was a perfect three-point landing.” After a calculated pause he added. “I wish I’d known you then, I could’ve invited you onto it.”
By then, he had the crowd almost in synch with his unpredictable stride. So it didn’t matter that he’d clearly crossed the line into fabrication. We were about ready to follow him anywhere. Even time seems to wait to hitch a ride with Elliott. Grimm said he drove Jack from Denver to Milwaukee in one day.
Ramble on, Jack Elliott. Hope to see you back this way again some time.
Irrepressible Ramblin’ Jack Elliott even had stories to tell for a number of fans waiting in line for him after a recent performance at Shank Hall in Milwaukee. Photo by Ann K. Peterson