South Coast

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Red House Records (RHR 59)

A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
reviewed by harperess


Jack Elliott learned Woody's songs and guitar style by playing and singing with Woody himself. Then Elliott added his own refinements until the disciple became the performer Woody would have been had the master possessed a really good voice and been willing to work on his licks.

Many blamed Jack Elliott's too-close Guthrie connection for his small share of commercial bookings in the blacklist years of the folk revival. There was also a rumor that when Dylan caused a riot by dropping his Elliott-clone act two years after album sales demonstrated its immense popularity, Bobby's managers did everything they could to keep the audience that wanted more of the pre-R-word* Dylan (practically everybody in those days) from discovering the genuine and original Jack Elliott of whom Dylan was only a cartoon.

Thanks to support from Sing Out magazine where he was often pictured and quoted, Jack's name remained among the folk revival greats. This exposure assisted Elliott in continuing his career even without releasing a new record album every year and without "experts" to pick and produce his hits. He just rambled on, singing the songs he liked to sing the way he'd learned from Woody.

Sometime while Jack was ramblin', the commercial music establishment organized the "stars", demanding they make their music more difficult to play a la Glenn Campbell and develop impossible to duplicate or prohibitively expensive to imitate "sounds." This strategy evolved so that inexpensive or free local talent who used to play the folk hits in coffeehouses would no longer appeal to more critical audiences. As planned, those low budget venues, unable to afford to hire the expensive new acts, folded, leaving a clear field for the major concert promoters.

Jack ignored the edict and made a personal and musical life for himself independent of the mainstream music establishment. That life looked from the outside a lot like every folkie's vision of the Pastures of Plenty, with no lack of pals to drink with, and songs to sing, and roads going on and on, and Montana to go home to.

It's 1995. Jack is still doing his original act with the same fidelity to his folk roots. After 27 years, here's a Jack Elliott CD with all new cuts of songs he learned from Woody, along with some of the most famous hits of the folk revival.

If you were there, you'll remember and enjoy familiar early 60's folk standards like "Rake and a Ramblin' Boy." Remember the Joan Baez version? Well, I like this one better. The album's title tune--"South Coast" is very different from the Kingston Trio's interpretation. You expect a couple of salty tunes from a rough and ready rambler like Jack. They're in here along with a startlingly touching rendition of "If I Were A Carpenter," his version of the traditional cowboy ballad, "Buffalo Skinners," and, of course, considerable blues so he can really cut loose on that Martin.

If you've never heard Jack's brand of folk before, you'll find the voice true and pleasant, the guitar accomplished and interesting. If there's any overdubbing, it's certainly not apparent; this one appears to be all talent, no tech. Jack's delivery never wavers from its own internal logic. By the third cut, you'll probably accept, as I did, the Guthrie-style pronunciation and phrasing as art rather than affectation.

This one will take you "Old Folkies" back, yet it has all the technical finesse you would expect of a 90s recording. Folk radio, here's a great addition to your playlist. And Jack, it WAS worth the wait.

*R-word -- rock and roll

editors note: harperess is a regular participant of the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange who writes from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

This review is copyrighted, 1995 by Three Rivers Folklife Society.
It may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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