Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Back in my misguided youth when I was discovering the transcendental delights of Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie and Jelly Roll Morton, an accidental introduction to Ramblin' Jack Elliott was one of those "Eureka!" moments. In an era when pop music was undergoing a huge electro-psychedelic transformation, here was a guy trying to sound old-school. On purpose. It may be commonplace now, but in the late '60s it seemed as revolutionary as Jefferson Airplane or Moby Grape. No one was consciously trying to sound like someone…old.

My fascination with Elliott only increased as I came to understand that he was the musical/generational link between Woody Guthrie (whom Elliott had bummed around with for years in the '50s) and Bob Dylan, who both was influenced by Elliott and almost single-handedly brought Guthrie to the attention of a whole new generation of listeners in the early '60s. My friends and I spent countless hours listening to Elliott's 1968 major-label release, Young Brigham, which sold miserably. Today, the album seems like one of the first inklings of what would come to be called alt-country. The LP contained Elliott's epic stream-of-consciousness rap "912 Greens," in which he sang and busked his way "down through the Smoky Mountains to New Orleans" to a house where "a girl that had once been an ex-ballet dancer took her clothes off and danced around in the rain, around the banana tree, round and around." The album also contained a highly uncommercial cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," a faithful version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," Guthrie-ish versions of "Tennessee Stud" and "Rock Island Line" and a most unusual cover of the Rolling Stones' "Connection" (from their landmark electric album Between the Buttons). None other than Johnny Cash wrote the liner notes, in which he said, "I'm anxious to hear your album Young Brigham. And here's a switch: Don't send me a copy. I'll buy one."

Almost 40 years on, Ramblin' Jack's act hasn't changed much. He's still singing and busking, although these days -- since his rediscovery by Dave Alvin a few years back -- he's traveling in style and playing the best listening rooms the country has to offer a bona fide national treasure. To borrow a line from Ronny Elliott, "He played 'em real pretty and he partied real hard / there's never been another one before or since."

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William Michael Smith