It’s unclear how much Ramblin’ Jack Elliott really remembers about the Great Depression. After all, the 77-year-old folk singer was just a child when the Depression ended. Whether he directly absorbed what was happening remains questionable, but he certainly soaked up the songs and culture on a deeper, more primal level. He must have sucked them up with his mother’s milk or on some other elemental level. The proof is evident on his latest Anti- release, a ten-song collection of Depression-era acoustic-blues classics that intimately conveys the heart of hard times in the country.
Elliott’s scratchy vocals and vibrato-guitar strumming keeps things as simple and honest as the dust on the road and a long, tall glass of water to a thirsty man. He brings forth a time when a man’s voice was the measure of his soul, and when no one could afford material possessions, a soul was all one had. Therefore, it makes sense Elliott offers a stripped-down version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man”, asking the eternal question about how to measure the worth of a human being. In Elliott’s rendition, the answer becomes clear: Each person matters to God, and worldly possessions and accomplishments do not figure in the equation. He says this without saying it, just by raising the question in a voice that yearns for redemption.
But that doesn’t mean Elliott doesn’t understand the value of the more fleshy experiences. He sings of a temptress so seductive and fickle in Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman’s Blues” one aches in empathy with his strong physical desires. A rowdy risqué quality to his voice can be found in the slight chortle in his throat as he sings of seduction.
Joe Henry’s (Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint) production puts Elliott right in the center of the recording. Although it contains some fine backing musicians here, notably Van Dyke Parks and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Henry uses them to accent Elliott’s unique sound rather than to accompany him. The side musicians always play behind the vocals and guitar or merely as a way to introduce an atmospheric quality to the overall sound.
Take Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face”. The music starts with a bass cadence and triangle. Then a piano marches in, but when Elliott makes his appearance, these instruments fade to the background, spurting out only when there are silences in the vocals. The impression deliberately haunts, like ghosts that peer out from behind mirrors and pillars only when your back is turned. You can feel your gut curl as he tells you to gird yourself in order to deal with those people who lie to you with a smile.
These are the blues, so pleasures can be be found in the misery, as in the song from where the title comes from, Tampa Red’s “The New Strangers Blues”. Elliott gives the impression the blues will soon be behind him, and he will soon leave for more familiar territory. The blues look forward to what’s next, which makes the complaining worthwhile. One might be tired, hungry and sore, but the implication exists one won’t always be that way. Hope is on the horizon; one just has to keep movin’ on.
This implication makes Elliott’s achievement so extraordinary. After living a long, full life, he’s not dwelling on past glories. Elliott might sing of “blues so bad that it hurts my feet to walk”, but this doesn’t stop him from going forward. No matter how long it takes him, he’s gonna get there some time, making him an inspiration to us all.