The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and various musicians, directed by his daughter Ailaya Elliott, Crawford Productions, 2000
Recently, in a DVD review of the film documentary about 1960’s folk legend Bob Dylan’s mid-career crisis, “Bob Dylan: After the Crash: 1966-78”, I noted, in passing, that folk guitarist Tom Paley (who was prominently featured in that film) and his group, The New Lost City Ramblers, were already waiting at the gates of Greenwich Village when the hordes of young folk revivalists started to arrive. The folk artist under review, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, in this very personal film documentary directed by his daughter, Ailaya Elliott, was also waiting there for them. Or, as the film makes clear, he was at least rumored to be waiting for them. This almost two hour bittersweet valentine to the now grand old man of the folk music revival (in 2000) is the story of why he was waiting for them, and more importantly, why they were searching for him as an agent of “authentic” American roots music.
As has also been mentioned, seemingly endlessly, in this space in many reviews over the past year or so about the male division of the folk revival of the 1960’s I have tried to explore, why or why not, certain talented folk singers never reached the status of Bob Dylan, the acknowledged “king of the hill” of that revival. From the first paragraph we already know that Ramblin’ Jack was already on the scene. Moreover, he had the pedigree that all aspiring folkies craved, including Dylan- physical links to the legendary Woody Guthrie the herald of the previous generation of the folk troubadours from the dust bowl 1930’s. Moreover Jack was a quick study, really wanted to expand the folk universe and, as this film also makes abundantly clear, he just plain liked the life style of the itinerant wanderer. So what gives?
Well, Jack just liked to keep wandering, and wandering in motion and speech and not getting attached, at least for long, to any one place person or thing. That, my friends, is the codified social genetic structure that some people live with as they try to reinvent themselves. In Jack’s case from a nice Jewish city boy (the Brooklyn of the title of this review) to an old cowboy. This is hardly the first time that someone has turned their persona around in the whirlwind of the homeland of personal reinvention, America. However, it took something out of him, as he himself reflects on his life as he travels the roads back to the past (in an RV) with his ambivalent director daughter in tow.
But here is my take on why he was left seemingly behind in the mad whirl of the folk revival and its aftermath. He didn’t move, like Dylan, either with the times or with his own drummer. He started out as a Woody acolyte, as did Dylan, but he wanted to preserve the purity of the Woody canon, intact. As a transmission belt from Woody to Dylan Ramblin’ Jack performed a yeoman’s service. But where is Jack’s equivalent of not just “Song to Woody” but “Desolation Row”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Visions of Johanna”, and so on. That said, this film is filled with various close-ups of Ramblin’ Jack doing his unique covers of many songs, the usual rare film footage of the early days of the folk revival, of Jack Elliott and his family life and the usual “talking head” commentary from friends, lovers and folk colleagues that round out these kinds of efforts. This is a daughter’s film, this is a folkie’s film and this is a welcome addition to the growing body of visual tributes to American roots music and its practitioners. Kudos, Ailaya.