Ramblin' Jack Elliott: Young Brigham / Bill Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks
Ramblin' Jack Elliott celebrated people who lived at the margins of society. He was older than the new, young generation. It was difficult to make him hip.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is one of America’s greatest troubadours. He’s been singing and playing folk and folk-style music since the early '50s with Woody Guthrie, to the '60s and '70s with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Arlo Guthrie, and more recently in the 21st century with collaborators including members of Wilco, X, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as Bob Weir and Loudon Wainwright III. The man is a living legend with a large discography and many a tale to tell.
However, he doesn’t have a great voice and he does tend to ramble. His moniker of “Ramblin’” was bestowed upon him because he blathered, not because he traveled. Elliott’s voice not infrequently goes flat or sharp or just plain out of tune. This gives him a certain degree of authenticity. His well-worn voice (even as a young man) sounds like that of a real cowboy driving cattle or the hobo hopping a train. That can turn into some unpleasant listening. Maybe Elliott accurately conveys how ordinary people sing, but there is a reason why most people don’t give concerts.
Elliott’s tendency to add verbiage to well-known songs and offer long introductions and tell tall tales are part of his charm, but can also irritate. Unfortunately, the two albums combined on a single disc here, Young Brigham (1968) and Bill Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks (1970) do not show Elliott at his best. Both albums are filled with long-winded dialogue and off-key vocals. The song selections are also somewhat mundane as Elliott offers familiar tunes better known (and better sung) by the original artists.
The CD offers five tracks by Bob Dylan, including two versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” -- once as a vocal, once as an instrumental -- as well as four other Dylan cuts ("I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", "Lay Lady Lay", "Girl from the North Country", and "With God on Our Side"), three by Woody Guthrie (“Talking Fisherman”, “G”, and “Goodnight Little Arlo”), and two each by Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues", “Rock Island Line”) and Tim Hardin ("Reason to Believe", If I Were a Carpenter"), in addition to other familiar songs of the time such as Kris Kristofferson’s "Me and Bobby McGee" and Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud”. The disc also contains some sonic experimental noise, in particular the annoying cut "We Come Here Not Chicago Dutchland For The Alles Brink Hoop Geslaffen Mocker" that includes lots of babbling in German as well as shouts of “Sieg Heil”. The less said about this cut, the better.
Elliott’s joined by a crack band on the 11 Young Brigham songs, including Mark Spoelstra on guitar, Richard Greene on fiddle, and Bill Lee on organ. It’s unclear who is with him on Bill Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks, but the best moments are when it's just him alone singing and playing without any kind of effects. These two albums may not show Elliott at his best, but suggest how strange was the time period from when they were released. The mix of folk, pop, rock, and jazz here does not always work and indeed is somewhat cheesy. These were major label releases and suggest it was hard to package someone like Elliott to a contemporary audience. He celebrated people who lived at the margins of society. He was older than the new, young generation. It was difficult to make him hip.
These two albums on one CD offer a glimpse into the past, but remember -- Elliott is still alive. His life and music deserve praise. This shows what his music was like back during a strange time in American history.