Horatio Alger got nothin’ on Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
In a far more interesting take on personal transformation than the old rags-to-riches schtick, we begin our tale with a Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Elliot (one t) Charles Adnopoz, born to a doctor who wanted his son to follow his father’s footsteps and become a surgeon. Dad made the fatal error of taking young Elliot to a traveling rodeo show at Madison Square Garden where his impressionable son developed a lifelong fascination with the cowboy lifestyle. A couple of years after his Bar Mitzvah, Elliot ran away from home and joined Colonel Jim Eskew’s itinerant rodeo troupe, whose act featured a singing cowboy by the name of Brahmer Rogers.
His youthful lark ended when his parents tracked him down a few months later and hauled his ass back to Brooklyn. Inspired by his encounter with Rogers, Elliot taught himself guitar and started busking on the streets of New York. Demonstrating the determination of a man who has found his purpose in life, he somehow managed to introduce himself to Woody Guthrie and over time became something of a protégé to the legendary folk singer.
Finding validation for his urge to ramble in Guthrie’s own life story, Elliot traversed the Lower 48, eventually winding up in La-La Land, where he met a banjo picker named Derroll Adams (who later hooked up with Donovan). Sometime in the mid 50’s the pair established a new home base in London and began playing shows all over the U.K. and continental Europe. The now-restyled Jack Elliott (two t’s) recorded three albums for the British folk label Topic Records; when he returned to the United States in the nascent years of the ’60s folk revival, he was surprised to learn that those three albums had earned him a considerable following among the folks back home.
A large part of his appeal had to do with his mastery of the Guthrie catalog. With Woody dying of Huntington’s disease, Jack was the man who kept Woody’s legacy alive, eventually teaching Woody’s songs to Arlo Guthrie. His recording of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Sings Songs by Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers solidified his reputation as a major interpreter of core American folk music. Ramblin’ Jack influenced many folk singers of that fruitful era, including and especially Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Some consider him a fraud who capitalized on Guthrie’s legend; that perspective doesn’t hold much weight when you consider Jack’s relationship with Arlo. Jack did as much (or more) than Bob Dylan to solidify Woody Guthrie’s place in American music history, and many of his interpretations of Guthrie breathed new life into Guthrie’s songs.
Young Brigham was his first major-label release via Reprise Records in 1968, named after “Jack’s cow pony, twelve years old, raised and bred by Slim Green who runs the saddle shop down in Seton Village, New Mexico, where Jack was staying in a disused railway carriage before the recording of this work.” Yup, pardner, we’re a-gonna hear some cowboy tunes and lone prairie ditties, but there’s also summa that there newfangled stuff thunk up by Tim Hardin and even Jagger & Richards. The one original contribution is one of the great talking songs of all time. You won’t hear a bit of pretense on Young Brigham, just the sound of a fully reconstructed cowboy playing his gee-tar and singing songs with a few good buddies.
PSA: I strongly recommend the vinyl version not only for its sound quality but because you’ll be able to read Johnny Cash’s liner notes without incurring permanent eye damage.
Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” opens the festivities, a song that had been a comeback hit for Bobby Darin (whose appeal will forever elude me) and later by The Four Tops (in flower power style, no less). The most distinctive aspect of Ramblin Jack’s version when compared to either Darin’s or the Hardin original is the sheer density of the acoustic guitar, with notes cascading in a swift stream in contrast to the more reflective, laid-back approach heard in other versions. Combined with Bill Lee’s eerie held notes on the organ and the unusual sound of producer Bruce Langhorn’s non-linear tabla, the arrangement carries a definite emotional tension that reflects the shifting emotions expressed through Jack’s vocal. Sometimes we hear him softly pleading; sometimes he sounds desperate for reassurance that his woman would love him regardless of his station in life—and at least once he attempts to vocalize the gritty reality of a man who works with his hands (“at a mill wheel grinding“) as if he believes she needs vivid imagery to grasp the worst-case scenario. Jack pretty much does all he can to make the song his own, and his version remains my favorite of the lot.
Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Fisherman Blues” gets a new title (“Talking Fisherman”) and a fresh interpretation from the acknowledged master of the Guthrie catalog. Jack made few minor lyrical edits to Guthrie’s original, but also wisely restructured the song so that all the “fishing stories” (the legendary tales of reelin’ in the big one) appear in sequence at the end of the song. Our angler doesn’t seem particularly skilled at the sport, having been dragged into the water in verse one and managing to snag only “two old boots and a Ford Radiator and a Chevrolet Coupe” in verse two. He doesn’t seem to be too concerned about his failures; in verse three we find him “settin’ in a boat with a bucket of beer” with “my little lady right by my side”; in verse four, he gives prospective fishermen insider tips on the tricks of the trade: “Find you a good shade tree and then just set down/Go to sleep, forget all about it.” Jack really shines when telling the fishing stories, displaying his talent as a top-tier bullshitter by relating his dubious accomplishments with casual, ’twas nothin’ panache. You can easily visualize Jack holding court in the local saloon surrounded by a group of local yokels hanging on his every word. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but the man knows how to spin a good tale:
Jumped in the river and I went down deep
There was a hundred-pound catfish lying there asleep
Jumped on his back I rode him into town
Saddled him up and I come to town
People come-a runnin’
Dogs a-barkin’, kids lookin’
I waded out to a sandy bar
And I caught myself a big alligator gar
Brung him home across my back
Tail was dragging a mile and a half
Flippin’ and floppin’
Sold him for a quarter
Got drunk, shot craps, got in jail
Early one mornin’, I took me a notion
To go out a-fishin’ in the middle of the ocean
And I caught myself a great big shark
And I didn’t get him home ’til way past dark
He a man-eater, tough customer
Just wasn’t quite tough enough
Late last night I had me a dream
I was out fishin’ in a whiskey stream
I baited my hook with apple-jack
I’d throw out a drink and bring a gallon back
I done pretty good ’til the stream run dry
So I give the fish back to the finance company
I love the way Jack extends the vowel sound on “wa-aaaaaay past dark” and raises his pitch in cocky self-congratulation on the line “Just wasn’t quite tough enough.” I italicized the phrase “got drunk” as it’s not in the Guthrie original but that insertion and the whiskey stream verse brought to mind an incident described in Michael Schumacher’s Phil Ochs bio There But For Fortune:
Oddly enough, the album’s simplest arrangement turned out to be the most difficult to get on record. For “Joe Hill,” a basic guitar-vocal arrangement, Phil decided that he had to have Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as the song’s guitarist. Phil told Marks that he wanted Elliott because Ramblin’ Jack was the best flat-picker around, but in all likelihood, Phil’s decision was at least partially based on the recent Woody Guthrie memorial concert fiasco (altrockchick note: Phil was pissed because Ramblin’ Jack was left off the bill) . . .
Regardless of the motive, Phil’s decision to include Elliott proved to be problematic. “He was a real character,” Larry Marks said of Elliott. “He was drunk when he walked in the door. He basically flat-picked his way through ‘Joe Hill,’ but when he was wasted he just kind of went downhill; he could no longer flat-pick. Phil wasn’t going to do the song without Jack. He was going to work his way through it, one way or another, so we started it in the morning, to see if we couldn’t get him alive and well.”
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Well, since Ramblin’ Jack just turned 81, I’d say there might be something to the notion that getting yourself pickled every now and then might just extend your life span.
Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” has been covered by a diverse set of artists—Johnny Cash, Country Joe Mc Donald, Doc Watson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Walter Brennan (!)—but the first cover came from Eddy Arnold, who earned a Grammy nomination for his take. I found most of them stunningly boring compared to Ramblin’ Jack’s rendition, in large part due to the omnipresence of Richard Green’s fiddle. The Dirt Band’s version includes a fiddle, but it feels decorative as opposed to Green’s deeply integrated approach that takes full advantage of the modal opportunity presented by the unusual presence of an Am7 chord in the pattern. Jack generously cedes Richard the time and space to develop his part, giving the arrangement an edge that complements the darker aspects of the tale.
Our “hero” is quite the violent type, a product of the American Frontier in 1825 who leaves his gal behind in Tennessee due to bad blood between him and the girl’s pa and her outlaw brother. Illiterate, he has his Uncle Fudd send a “see ya, honey” letter to the gal and heads south and west on his Tennessee stud through the Arkansas Territory, eventually winding up somewhere across the Rio Grande. Along the way he runs “smack into an injun band” and wisely gets away like “a bat out of hell” in a verse that is wisely omitted from other versions. Dander up, he gets into a tiff with a gambler who “fell with a thud” after our “hero” put a bullet in his heart. Meanwhile, he’s gettin’ lonesome and Tennessee somehow communicates his own desire to make use of his studsmanship, so man and horse speed back over the Arkansas mud back to Tennessee to get laid. Upon arrival, our “hero” leaps off his horse and “whupped her brother and I whupped her pa,” completing the frontier courtship ritual by confirming his own studsmanship. His gal immediately leaps into his arms and soon produces baby number one, who just happens to be born at the same time as Tennessee’s colt.
There is no evidence in the song that our human stud was prosecuted for his three crimes. Jack delivers the song in a distinctly un-macho high nasal twang that I’d like to believe was a deliberate attempt at feminist satire, but I’d like to believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and a gun-free America, too.
Jack opens a series of traditional songs by taking a full minute to imitate the sound of a Caterpillar tractor via dry gargle, then follows that one-of-a-kind performance by sharing some insight into the life of a cowboy on a cattle drive before launching “Night Herding Song” in twangy a capella, an extended rendition of the classic “Rock Island Line,” and the rather quaint folk tune “Danville Girl.” I’m not exactly sure why I like this part of the album, but I am fond of the sound and inflections of Jack’s voice when he’s in storytelling mode. I think this pause in the action adds a lot to the overall feel of the album—a kick-back-relax-and-enjoy-the-campfire kind of experience. As for cowboys, I’ve never dated one, but I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for making cheeseburgers possible.
The crown jewel of Young Brigham is “912 Greens,” a coming-of-age story set in the America of 1953. We know from the history books that 1953 was the height of McCarthyism and red paranoia, but much of written history is based on the headlines and does not often reflect how Average Joe and Jane lived their daily lives. A peek at the best-selling books and top-grossing movies of 1953 reveals that Americans were less interested in McCarthy’s ravings and more interested in self-improvement (The Power of Positive Thinking), World War II tales (From Here to Eternity), horny women (Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) and the critical need to achieve success on the fairways (How to Play Your Best Golf). And as is always the case in any historical period, there are a significant number of people who choose to live outside or on the edges of “normal” and engage in journeys of self-discovery. Ishmael. Huck Finn. Sal Paradise.
“912 Greens” is one such journey. Some pieces I’ve read waste a lot of time speculating whether or not the events in “912 Greens” are fictional or real, which hardly matters. We know from the disgusting emergence of “Reality TV” that the “reality” they sell bears little resemblance to life in the real world and that great literary fiction often comes closer to accurately depicting reality than the typical newscast. Whether the events described in “912 Greens” happened or not, the story feels real, right down to the smallest details.
The music is a simple pattern of G, Cadd9 (or C or Cmaj7) G, D; sometimes Jack lingers on the D-G or just holds the D chord a bit longer to mix things up. The Cadd9 helps to create a center of gravity around the D note, giving the piece the necessary tinge of melancholy. Jack’s arpeggiated picking creates a whole lot of notes within a single measure, but he never comes close to losing track of the beat. We hear only two-and-a-half measures of that pattern before Jack enters to tell us a story about a trip he took to New Orleans.
We soon learn that Jack “went down there with Frank and Guy” and that they “sang and bust our way through the Smoky Mountains/And on down to New Orleans,” young American men luxuriating in the freedom of the open road in search of life experience. Part of their mission involves looking up one Billy Faier, a “five-string banjo picker” who would eventually play a significant role in integrating the banjo into modern American folk music. All they have is a name and a rather elusive address:
Lived in a house called 912 Toulouse Street
And the way we found him, well that was a whole ‘nother song
Let’s just say we found Billy Faier
And he took us over there to 912 Toulouse Street
The only entrance I knew to this place
Was over a back fence up an alley
And over a fence, by some garbage cans, look out for that rusty nail
Now you’re up, now you’re over
If you look up the address on Google Maps, you’ll find 910 Toulouse Street and 914 Toulouse Street but no 912. While the symbolism of a place that exists only in another dimension of the space-time continuum strengthens the theme of “experience outside of the normal flow of life,” it is more likely that 912 Toulouse did exist (proof to follow shortly) and that its unique location “over a back fence and up an alley” defied the algorithmic talents of contemporary map makers.
Jack describes the place in poetically concrete language that makes 912 Toulouse Street come to life:
And there was a cement-over patio
All paved in concrete, with a banana tree in the middle of it
Well, I never did see no bananas hanging on it
As they said it was a banana tree
Jack’s stutter on the phrase “no bananas” expresses both his excitement of recalling a sweet memory and his relative greenness at the time. The presence of the tree introduces the classic conflict between nature and progress that formed a key theme in American literature, a conflict that still runs hot today between those who want to conserve the beauty of the land and those who want to exploit it. Jack then completes the picture of this atypical oasis and how its inhabitants creatively transformed the structure into something more than the typically lifeless apartment block:
And a wooden staircase leading up to a wooden balcony
That connected all the various different musicians
And different various pads
Not satisfied with the elusiveness of the address, I looked up the address on Vieux Carré Digital Survey via The Historic New Orleans Collection and found this picture taken in 1964 of the rear view of 910-912 Toulouse Street (probably taken by the photographer from the perspective of the banana tree):
Interestingly enough, Jack describes only one of the inhabitants in any significant detail:
And a grey cat with three legs named Grey
That used to lope along and fall down
‘Cause Grey he had a stroke, couldn’t run too good on them three legs no how
He helps us visualize Grey’s disability by letting his fingers slip down the guitar on the phrase “fall down.” We can assume that Grey has no specific home but is cared for collectively as part of the larger family. His presence in the song tells us more about the humanity of the tenants than we would have learned from character sketches. Grey’s will to survive was probably deeply admired by his caretakers, who were likely struggling to survive themselves.
Jack would have been remiss not to include a reference to the dominant feature of summer in New Orleans (“It was very hot there and humid in August”) and a bit of local color (“What with the wind coming off the Mrs. Miller River and the Jax Brewery”. The Mrs. Miller River is the Mississippi; the colloquial language refers to Mary Millicent Miller, the first woman in America to earn a steamboat master license. The Jax Brewery started bottling their German pilsner knock-off way back in 1891 and was converted into a shopping gallery in the 1970s. Try to imagine the fruity, yeasty, pungent aroma of a brewery mingled with the smell of mold and relentless humid heat and you’ll deeply appreciate what comes next:
And around towards sundown, the weather broke into
A tropical rainstorm and the rain . . . came
The awesome power of nature triggers the instinctual functions in the lower brain, inspiring a spontaneous Dionysian ritual:
And there was this girl there who had once been an ex-ballet dancer
And she took all her clothes off and danced around in the rain
Around the banana tree, around and around
And I . . . followed suit
This communion with nature ends when the rain stops and everyone heads indoors where they pass the time in comfortable communion with one another:
And we sat around drinking Billy Faier’s wine
And getting acquainted till it was almost sun-up
And as day started breaking, everybody start splitting
Over that back alley fence
Which was the only entrance I ever knew to that place
And I split too
The reference to the back alley fence tells us we’re nearing the end of the tale, a feeling reinforced by Jack’s sincere tone of regret on “And I split too.” Through his clipped phrasing, downbeat tone and spare lyrics, Jack captures the bittersweet emotions we feel when recalling a sacred moment in our lives that ended far too soon:
Stayed around three weeks in New Orleans . . .
Never did see the light of day
And I never have been back
At this point Jack plays the dominant pattern on his guitar with occasional changes in punctuation; the theme now cast as an elegy to loss—of youth, of a carpe diem experience, of a temporary connection to timelessness. He lowers the volume on his guitar for a few measures where he remains on the G chord like he’s gathering his thoughts, then ends the song with a question, half-sung, half-spoken:
Did you ever stand and shiver
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?
The river . . . the ultimate symbol of life’s journey, the streams we follow, the source of water that makes life possible. Jack described “912 Greens” as the best thing he ever did, and all I can say to that is “Amen.” He revisited the song with new lyrics on Kerouac’s Last Dream in 1981, but the update falls far short of the original masterpiece.
In a just world, “912 Greens” would have closed the album, but Jack had other ideas, namely an updated version of Woody’s “Goodnight Little Arlo” in which Jack essentially warns Arlo not to let the success of “Alice’s Restaurant” go to his head and cause him to lose his beauty sleep. Before we arrive at that unfortunate example of insiderism, Jack gives us two excellent covers: the almost-obligatory nod to Dylan in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and a playful country-western take on The Stones’ “Connection.”
Though I’m still disappointed with the ending, Young Brigham remains a triumphant effort by one of America’s great song interpreters and flat pickers. I’ll one-up Ramblin’ Jack by providing a far more satisfying close than he did, courtesy of Johnny Cash (from the liner notes):
“WHEN A FELLER HAS GIVEN LIFE A GOOD GRIND AN IS LAYIN’ ON HIS DYIN’ BED WITH HIS HANDS FOLDED ACROST HIS CHEST-BONE, FEELIN’ THE FINAL THUMPIN’ OF HIS INNARD WARKIN’S, HE ORT TO FEEL PROUDFUL OF HISSELF IF HE CAN KNOW IN HIS OWN HEAD THAT ALL HIS ‘LAYIN’ BY’ IS ‘LAID BY’ PROPER . . .
THEN SOME OF HIS GOOD FOLKS ORT T’ RAISE UP HIS HEAD A TAD T’ LET HIM TAKE ONE LAST FACIN’ LOOK THRU HIS WAXIN’ EYEBALLS ONCET AGIN AT HIS OWN TWO HANDS. AN’ . . . HE ORT T’ FEEL MORE PROUDFUL OF HISSELF IF HE CAN SAY IN HIS OWN HEAD, CONCERNIN’ HIS OWN HANDS:
“A BUNCH OF TIMES I HAVE DID SUMP’N’ NUTHER GOOD WITH ‘EM.”