Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – The Rambler
Then Jack says he called Guy Clark to say hello late last year, and Townes was on the phone. At this the talk turns softer. The road manager checks in, asks about Jack sitting in for two songs. “We ain’t fer sure of the key yet,” says Jack. “Don’t worry,” says Marty. “You pick one. We’ll blunder in behind ya. Always wanted to be in your band.”
Anyway, Marty Stuart and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: You’ve heard of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? With Ramblin’ Jack, two degrees is rara avis.
Back on the phone to California. Still not getting to the point, but having a good time avoiding it. Jack reins in a story, tries to do the proper interview thing.
“Y’wanna talk about guitar chords? Or picks? Tricks? Cases? Airlines?” You see how it goes.
Jan, in the background. Saying something that ends with “…new album!”
“Album!” Jack snickers like a kid hiding from his mother on his night to do dishes.
I take a shot. “Here’s the trouble: My editor and your producer will at some point probably expect that we mention the new album, huh?”
“What magazine is this for?”
“No Depression magazine.”
“Oh, right, No Depression magazine…that’s cute.”
I press on, none too eloquently. “Which actually, before I ask you about the album stuff, I think, that the magazine is, y’know, it’s a young audience, it’s kinda alternative country is what it is. How d’you…” Jack pulls in without signaling, cuts me off with a whopping non sequitur.
“Yeah, I was surprised, because I always got depressed when I was in Seattle, even when I was truckin’. Oh, I like the boats, I love the water up there. I had a wonderful adventure rowin’ around in a rubber raft on Lake Union one day, and got picked up by a kid in a lifeboat who was sailing with a homemade sail rig, made out of a transparent piece of visqueen plastic sheet, a two-by-four for a mast, and some clothesline for riggin’, and he was steerin’ with an oar, he didn’t even have a rudder, but it was a real old, tiny little ship’s lifeboat off of some ferry boat, and he lived with his parents on some 45-foot yawl that was moored over the yacht anchorage at the opposite side of the bay — the upwind end of this Lake Union, which is full of all kinds of interesting ships. There’s a big four-masted lumber schooner that lives there called the Wawona, there’s the Center for Wooden Boats…”
Which reminds me. All that talk about the stooped-over voice, the colds, the bad hip, I’ve made him sound old. But when he really gets going, when he’s trying to explain to you how that racing schooner he boarded in Guam gathered up the wind and simply disdained the water, he drops the cowhand growl and just plain enthuses. And when he laughs — usually at a respectful distance following his own observations — it’s one of those half-and-half laughs. Half humor, half wonderment at it all. Like, can you believe this life?
I’ll skip ahead. Tell you that Ramblin’ Jack never did get around to commenting on the album. About the time my tape was running out, he announced that Friends Of Mine producer Roy Rogers had just tracked mud into the house. “Let me introduce you to someone,” I heard, and then Rogers was on the phone. I saw this for the opportunity it was and decided to make hay.
We talked about how a man who has written less than five songs in his life has become such a universal touchstone. “He’s the link,” said Rogers. “He was really the last guy to hit the road with Woody, and he had such strong connections in Europe, where the Rod Stewarts and the Mick Jaggers saw him in English folk clubs and he turned them on to American roots music. He’s not well-known to the general populace, and they don’t understand how he knows all these people, or why they know him, but that’s the way things have gone in our cultural context. There’s all this division into musical camps. People don’t understand….Jimmie Rodgers was a pop artist in his day. I asked Howlin’ Wolf once, ‘Where’d you get that yodel?’ ‘I listened to Jimmie Rodgers on the radio comin’ outta Nashville,’ he said.
“Not to get too scholastic, but when we chose the songs for this album, we wanted them to be representative of Jack’s whole context.” The context is there, not only in the songs, and the singers, but in the sound of the album. Listen to Ramblin’ Jack singing Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”, and you hear Townes. Of course, listen to Townes, and you hear Jack. And while I may be trying too hard, when I heard Jack’s high harmony behind Tom Waits on “Louise”, my first thought was of Sara Carter.
When he joins up with Jerry Jeff Walker on “Hard Travelin'” and “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, you’re hearing music written by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but you’re also hearing how Ramblin’ Jack informed country’s outlaw movement. His take on Joe Ely’s “Me And Billy The Kid” plants him in the midst of the Austin scene. And so on, right through pop rock (for those of us introduced to Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” via Rod Stewart), Nashville, and Deadhead land.
“It’s just him, covering a lot of different territory in American music,” said Rogers. “But we didn’t set out to make a nostalgic record. He’s not a historical guy, he’s right here now.” And for the record, for all its musical cross-references, the album doesn’t come off as a look back. Even “Bleeker Street”, a recent, rare Elliott composition, is set firmly in the present. The history is there, the whole Woody/Jack/Bob thing, but in the end, the song is about context. The here and now, how we got here, how it looks, and what we yet dare wish for.
Landlocked in dark Minneapolis, fitsing-and-startsing through the wet stoplights, Jack is telling the driver sea stories. He’s tiny in the front seat, all hunched shoulders and hat. The salt-spray hiss of the tires plays beneath the narration. “He went out the yardarm, on the foot-rope. The halyard parted. The yard crushed him. By Way Of Cape Horn, that’s the name of the book,” he says. “You should read it. It’s in the 917.8s.”
He’ll talk about trucks. He’ll talk about ships. He’ll talk about the Dewey Decimal System, for crying out loud. But Jack…what about the music? What’ll I tell people?
“Tell ’em my teeth are fallin’ out, I can barely walk, and they better hurry up if they wanna see me, ‘cuz I may not be around much longer.” He’s chuckling. “But if I make it through this year, I’m gonna get me that 1947 Peterbilt and put another Cummins 220 in it, it’s got a five and four, a long wheel base, I’m gonna put an old airstream trailer on the back of it, and man, we won’t have to get on no god-damn airports any-more!”
I giggle. It’s right there on the tape. Completely unprofessional. But it gives Jack time to circle back along the yarn and come up with an answer.
“Tell ’em I’m 19.”
Although Mike Perry once fell out of a bass boat, nothing he has written can be found in the 917.8s.