One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Alf Storrud
In March of this year, Ramblin' Jack Elliott won a Grammy for his recent album South Coast, which was deemed best traditional folk album of the year. At the same time, Rounder re-issued Me & Bobby McGee from his back-catalogue. Elliot's well-known obsession with Woody Guthrie and his rambling, eccentric life has unfortunately obscured the fact that he is a distinctive folk-stylist with a songbag and persona all his own. Let us hope that this re-issue will make more people aware of his achievements.
Me & Bobby McGee consists of 15 tracks taken from Ramblin' Jack's late sixties Warner/Reprise releases, Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks and Young Brigham. Bearing the appropriate scars of the era, these two albums have seldom been considered essential by his fans. However, a quick listen to this CD reveals some pretty hot playin'. An impressive cast of session musicians, including Pete Drake, Norman Blake, and Charlie McCoy, creates a sympathetic country-folk setting for Jack's voice and guitar. Not surprisingly, both albums have a feel reminiscent of Dylan's Nashville Skyline. More important, these sessions give Jack a chance to show off his talent as a vocalist. His warm, informal delivery makes even the lesser cuts worthwhile and raises the stronger selections to the status of classics.
Among the album's many gems is a wonderful, blues-tinged version of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. This song is electrified by Ramblin' Jack's howling harmonica and laid-back voice, and challenges Cash's own Sun recording of the song. It's one of my personal favorites. Jack's burning version of Rock Island Line is an epic ramble, and the crazy rhythm guitar work in the middle of the song is not to be missed. Like-wise, Jack plays a rocking, fiddle driven version of Jimmy Driftwood's Tennessee Stud.
Ramblin' Jack's clever recasting of Tim Hardin's songs, If I Were a Carpenter and Reason To Believe, makes them sound like he wrote them. No wonder he continues to perform them live. On the traditional, Night Herding Song, Jack howls like a sly coyote - I am still not sure if I will let my sheep out tonight! - while his version of Woody Guthrie's Talking Fisherman's Blues demonstrates that, without a doubt, he is one of the best Guthrie interpreters. He somehow manages to stamp his own personality on Guthrie's songs as he sings with Woody's trademark Okie drawl.
These sessions also include a self-written, all-time classic. The seven minute long 912 Greens is about Jack's whisky-drenched trip to New Orleans where he "...stayed around for 3 weeks and never saw the light of day..." The song, which seems to have been improvised on the spot, is a kind of distant cousin to Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant and is worth the price of the album alone. It's a truly original composition that's been an inspiration to songwriters, such as Guy Clark and Jackson Browne. It's the kind of song you would expect to hear if you gave Jack Kerouac a guitar and asked him to strum. A true gem!
This is a CD full of relaxed charm and subtle pleasures. A heartfelt thanks to Rounder for making these tracks available again.