Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: “A Stranger Here”

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At this point, any recorded music by the great Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is bound to carry with it a certain sense of history. Elliott is, after all, perhaps the only living, working musician who can legitimately claim to be an influence on Bob Dylan, his early folk recordings providing the template Dylan popularized and expanded upon with his own first few releases. But the weight of history is particularly great on Jack’s latest; here, for the first time, he picks his way through ten of the Depression-era country-blues tomes that formed the foundation for his own music–songs so old and so singular, they literally created the American archetypes and mythologies that artists like Jack and Dylan have spent the last sixty-odd years revisiting and revising.

In other words: It’s the sound of an old troubadour playing even older songs– the songs that shaped the artist, the culture, and the history of our music. And as with his first record for the ANTI- label, I Stand Alone, this new set bears a title that reflects Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s own peerless place in American music. But if the former title was one of defiance and survival, the new one comes from a place of bemused bewilderment; indeed, it’s taken from a lyric in one of the songs, and it just as much reflects the strange time and place in which these songs were birthed as it does the curious and perplexing climate in which Jack revives them today. Producer Joe Henry says in his liner notes that these ten songs speak with a certain strangeness and humor that is as resonant today as it was when they were first written. He’s right– though these songs are old, they’re also ageless– but, like any great folk album, this one is as much about the singer as it is the songs, and its triumph is twofold, testifying both to the resilience of these songs as well as the resilience of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

The curious thing about the songs chosen here is that they’re clearly bound to a rugged, decidedly American geography, and yet their resonance is bound neither by time nor place; these are tall tales, imbued with a surreal humor and grace that has made them into something much bigger than themselves– they’re as much a part of Americana as any music you could name, and their stories continue very much to be our own stories. “Rising High Water Blues” speaks in its own language about economic breakdown, a song belonging both to the Great Depression and to the current one; it is from this song that Dylan doubtless drew inspiration for his own “High Water.” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” bears witness to the finite human condition not by fetishizing death, but by finding a certain grim, deadpan humor in its own cut-to-the-bone simplicity. “Soul of a Man” is an ageless and tireless song of existential wondering, and “Richland Women Blues” revisits one of the great archetypal blues characters– the devil-woman– not out of any kind of misogyny, but simply as a way of speaking to the pains and the lethal absurdity of love.

With Henry producing, it’s implied that Elliott is furnished with a backing band of killer musicians– among them Van Dyke Parks, David Hidalgo (who, curiously enough, also plays on the upcoming Dylan album), and the rest of Henry’s usual suspects. Henry has a history of encouraging veteran artists to step away from what’s familiar and create something that expands on their legacy– witness the minimalist take on the blues he created with Solomon Burke, or the unlikely and amazing pairing of Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello— and he does it again here, pushing Elliott to make an album that stands alone even in his daunting body of work. Never before has Jack made an album quite like this, leading a full band through a set of woolly, quirky performances, by turns raucous and haunting.

And Elliott? He sounds decades younger than his 77 years, clearly energized by both the band and the songs. What he does here is create music that has one foot in the past and one in the present, reviving old music just as he pushes his own into exciting new territory, proving that as old and well-worn as this kind of music is, it doesn’t run any risk of becoming dated or familiar.

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