Ramblin' Jack Elliott,
The Lost Topic Tapes: Cowes Harbor 1957
(Hightone, 2004)

Along with its companion volume (The Lost Topic Tapes: Isle of Wight 1957) this album of never-before-released Ramblin' Jack Elliott performances documents the early years of a long career as a raw, authentic-sounding folk singer who was a living bridge between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Elliott, of course, has been a respected artist in his own right, though his eccentric ways are as often spoken of as his music.

These songs were recorded live, though not before an audience. Elliott sang them into a tape recorder aboard a yacht in a harbor in the Isle of Wight. The folk revival was just starting, and Elliott was doing songs that would enter the repertoires of many young guitar pickers to come. The set opens with a solid version of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" and moves on to a less edifying, safe-for-kids reading of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." There are, however, satisfying excursions into the Guthrie songbag, cowboy ballads (gritty takes on "Chisholm Trail" and "Streets of Laredo," surely close to the way actual cowboys sang them) and the once-ubiquitous "Acres of Clams," the most famous folk song to come out of the Pacific Northwest. For the most part Elliott is in superior form.

"Tom Dooley," unfortunately, is the Kingston Trio song, not one of the many more interesting and realistic variants sung of the long-ago North Carolina murder of Laura Foster. "Black Girl," learned from Lead Belly, gets off to a shaky start but then finds its feet. A stumble here and there notwithstanding, this recording is a good one, and longtime fans will be pleased to hear songs absent from other Elliott albums.

Now, for the next project: Isn't Ramblin' Jack long overdue for a serious biography?

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 January 2015

Review first published in 2004;
reprinted by permission.

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