Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Professional geezer, Woody Guthrie imitator, and cowboy song collector Ramblin' Jack Elliott celebrates the release of his biopic documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, with an accompanying soundtrack that serves as an adequate career summary for the wandering troubadour. It's a testament to Elliott's persistence in plugging away at his narrow vision of folk music for more than half a century that a film about his life should be made and commercially released.

Elliott Adnopoz of Brooklyn saw a rodeo show at Madison Square Garden as a boy, and this experience made such an impression that he ran away from home at the age of fourteen to join the rodeo. Young Elliott began reinventing himself as a cowboy singer, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and his parents' plans for him to become a doctor were shelved permanently. Befriending folksinger/social activist Woody Guthrie completed this process of transformation from Brooklyn native into a dust bowl Okie wannabe crooner of cowboy tunes.

Elliott probably was inspired in this quest by his mentor/idol Guthrie, who also did a bit of reinvention with his own public persona. It could be said that Guthrie, Elliott, and Bob Dylan created a template of sorts for almost all postwar folksingers who have followed in their path. Dylan, of course, took a lot of his shtick from Guthrie, but he got more than a lot as well from Ramblin' Jack, who proved that anybody could be an authentic purveyor of true folksongs if they wanted to badly enough. Dylan dropped a lot of the “Gee whiz, I'm just a singer of simple songs” pose when he started writing his own material and beginning his own process of reinvention in the early to mid-Sixties. Dylan might have moved on from his earnest folkie roots, but Ramblin' Jack never did. Jack has remained true to the cause.

And that's where the problem lies, because he just sounds drab and plain throughout most of this recording. He sounds a lot -- a whole lot -- like Woody Guthrie, who is featured here on a duet with Elliott from 1953. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but the resemblance often comes close to slavish imitation. The material here doesn't help much either; almost all the tunes featured are old chestnuts from the folkie catalogue. Elliott rarely adds anything new or interesting to these classic songs; he plays very traditional arrangements of these very traditional old tunes. Nice guy, everybody's pal, but he's duller than dishwater. Always was, really.

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Ross Johnson