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Ramblin' Jack Elliott: A Stranger Here (2009)

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Ramblin' Jack Elliott: A Stranger Here Few living artists can claim to have been mentor and model to Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
, but the man Dylan described as the King of folk singers— Ramblin' Jack Elliott—has influenced a host of singers and story tellers from Johnny Cash and Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
b.1947
guitar
to Tom Waits
Tom Waits
Tom Waits
b.1949
vocalist
. Now in his sixth recording decade, Elliott returns in great voice with A Stranger Here, a collection of Depression-era blues numbers.

Elliott has carried on Woody Guthrie's folk tradition, though the blues has been a part of the singer's songs since his first recordings in the mid-1950s, and he has sung the blues about everything from cocaine to arthritis. Therefore, it wasn't so far-fetched when producer Joe Henry pitched the idea for Elliott to record these songs of drifting, soul-searching, mortality and the cruel vicissitudes of nature.

There's a lovely shuffling New Orleans gait to "Rising High Water Blues," Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
1883 - 1929
vocalist
's 1927 classic, and David Piltch's bass has a tuba-deep, second line swing; Elliott's gravely voice intoning: "Children stand there screaming, 'Mama, we ain't got no home...'" still conjures images of Katrina, and jangling piano and mandolin sound like the very water breaking the levees.

Elliot's voice, despite his 78 years, is strong and emotive. On the influential guitarist Reverend Gary Davis

Reverend Gary Davis
1896 - 1972
guitar, acoustic
' "Death Don't Have no Mercy"—once a staple of Grateful Dead concerts, for whom Elliott played between sets— there's a weathered, soulful quality to Elliott's voice. Although Jerry Garcia's voice had withered towards the end, the similarities are there. Appropriately, there's a naked, soul- laid-bare edge to Elliott's voice on Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man." Greg Leisz' slide playing is a delight, and percussion, bass and ghostly dobro build powerfully and hypnotically to make this arguably one of the definitive versions of this classic blues.

The lovely country blues of Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt
1892 - 1966
guitar, acoustic
's "Richland Woman's Blues," Tampa Red
Tampa Red
Tampa Red
1904 - 1981
guitar, slide
's "New Stranger Blues" and Furry Lewis
Furry Lewis
Furry Lewis
1893 - 1981
guitar, acoustic
' gorgeous, gently paced "Falling Down Blues" provide contrast to the darker undertones of "Grinnin' in your Face;" Elliott conveys the pain and resignation of Son House
Son House
Son House
1902 - 1988
guitar, slide
's lament, which has the sobering effect of a shovel-full of cold earth on a coffin lid. Somber bass and drums, almost funereal, and mournful piano close the song.

The sensuous slow dance that is Leroy Carr

Leroy Carr
Leroy Carr
1905 - 1935
piano
's "How Long Blues" sees Elliott belt out the lines: "If I could holler like a mountain jack I'd go up on the mountain, call my baby back..." over David Hidalgo's swaying accordion. These songs have the feel of a front porch get-together, albeit with impeccable musicianship from the supporting cast.

Nat Hentoff wrote of a young Joan Baez, that she sang centuries-old, English folksongs as convincingly as if she was of that time. The same could be said for Ramblin' Jack Elliott's ability to become the protagonist of the songs he sings.

Elliott has never been a prolific song writer, making Dylan's praise perhaps unduly generous; nevertheless, this is a hugely satisfying recording by a unique figure in American music.


Track Listing: Rising High Water Blues; Death Don't Have No Mercy; Rambler's Blues; Soul of a Man; Richland Women Blues; Grinnin' in your Face; New Stranger Blues; Falling Down Blues; How Long Blues; Please Remember Me.

Personnel: Ramblin' Jack Elliott: vocals, acoustic guitar; Greg Leisz: acoustic guitar, mandolin, mandola, dobro, Weissenborn; David Piltch: upright bass; Jay Bellerose: drums and percussion; Keefus Ciancia: piano, keyboards; David Hidalgo: acoustic guitar, accordion; Van Dyke Parks: piano, vibraphone.

Record Label: Anti-

Style: Blues


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