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Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Album: Young Brigham/Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks
Label: Morello
Tracks: 24

Born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn in 1931, Jack was, quite naturally, heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie, and his mastery of Woody’s songs had a great impact on the young Bob Dylan, who kinda looked on Jack as “his long-lost father” (he was later featured on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Roadshow in the 70s, of course). Putting the record straight, Jack’s “Ramblin’” sobriquet came not from his travelling habits but rather from his knack of ramblin’ on before getting round to answer a simple question. Jack’s extraordinary career has to date spanned six decades (at age 85, he’s still gigging!), and he’s weathered all manner of trends with his timelessly idiosyncratic performance style, massive song repertoire and literally inexhaustible fund of stories and ramblins. It’s incredible that it wasn’t until 1995 that he received his first Grammy award, tho’.

And, considering his massive influence on successive generations of musicians from Dylan to Springsteen, it’s amazing that comparatively little of his recorded output is available on CD. Just one mid-90s compilation of early 60s recordings on Topic, as far as I can find… until now, with the release of this two-albums-on-one-CD jobbie from the good folks at Cherry Red, which sets side by side the pair of albums Jack made for Reprise in 1968 and 1970 respectively. These albums are very much of their time, with Jack’s laid-back natural ramblin’ and downhome troubadour music-making chiming in easily with the hippie era while providing the connecting thread back to the folk heritage legacy of the past decades. But they don’t feel dated in any negative way, just full of a positive, almost casual “hey, I can do that too!” vibe that’s really infectious, and entirely likeable even when you know he’s just stringing you along.

Taking the two albums in turn, then – Young Brigham is a collection that both looks back and faces forward, while keeping its philosophy firmly in the present. It unashamedly mixes prime then-contemporary material (Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter and – a real wild-card – the Stones’ Between The Buttons track Connection) with a quintessential take on Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, an ebullient trip on the Rock Island Line, a revisit of Danville Girl (recorded for Topic four years earlier), a delicious romp through Tennessee Stud (featuring some joyously rowdy fiddle from Richard Greene), a chilling a cappella Night Herding Song, an affectionately fun bedtime address Goodnight Little Arlo, and a typical “ramble” 912 Greens. The little house backing-band (which includes Peter Childs, Eric Hord, Mitch Greenhill and Mark Spoelstra) do just fine. The Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks album is nowhere near as interesting as Young Brigham, and mostly consists of workmanlike renditions of accompanied by a small electric band. Jack sounds tired, sometimes slightly the worse for wear and sometimes even more than a bit of a caricature; several of the songs are excerpted or faded out, and there’s also some excessive in-studio larking-about (one particular passage after Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down could’ve come from Zappa’s Freak Out sessions and includes some really weird crazed pseudo-German babble). It’s worth hearing the Bull Durham Sacks record (indeed, both of these albums had originally eluded me), but it’s a strangely unsatisfactory collection nonetheless.

Sadly, the accompanying documentation is sparse, certainly by the standards of the Cherry Red stable (to which the Morello label is affiliated). There’s no booklet essay or critical appraisal; for Young Brigham, there’s just a paragraph of endorsement from Johnny Cash and the performing credits, while regarding the second LP there’s no information at all beyond basic production credits and tracklisting, other than a reproduction of Arlo Guthrie’s original (slightly stoned, man!) sleevenote,. Hey, just a thought – I wonder if Jack ever got round to deducting the tax on the hay for the horse on the cover?

David Kidman