Ramblin' Jack Elliott,
The Lost Topic Tapes: Isle of Wight 1957
(Hightone, 2004)

Hightone is to be commended for resurrecting two long-lost Ramblin' Jack Elliott sets, both preserved on tape from Elliott's latter-1950s years in England and only now available to the rest of us. (The equally worthy companion disc is The Lost Topic Tapes: Cowes Harbour 1957.) Neither concerts nor studio recordings, they boast excellent sound quality. The performances are intimate and, the occasional stumble aside, nicely done.

Happily, the songs, while familiar in other versions by source or other artists, are not ones that Elliott recorded with monotonous regularity as his songlist shrank to maybe 25 songs over the decades. (In other words, fans can rest easy: no "San Francisco Bay Blues" or "Buffalo Skinners.") This disc demonstrates that, unlike most other folk singers of the emerging revival, Elliott was influenced by commercial country music (Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff) and jazz (Jelly Roll Morton). But it also reminds us what a splendid interpreter of traditional music Elliott was and is.

Elliott's reading of "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" is distinctive in two ways. One, "Roll" is usually recorded as a bluegrass tune (most famously by Flatt & Scruggs), not as the solo banjo-vocal piece it was in its original incarnation. And two, Elliott plays banjo, which he practically never did on record, ordinarily leaving that instrument to his then-wife June or, more famously in those days, Derroll Adams. Besides being novel, it's just plain refreshing: new life in the bones of an old, old song.

Other standouts include "Rock Island Line," "Ballad of John Henry" and a slowed-down, too-short "Don't You Leave Me Here." Of the Woody Guthrie songs, all that need be said is that Elliott always has done them better than Woody, an indifferent performer, ever managed to do. Ramblin' Jack is one big reason we remember Woody's songs.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 November 2014

Review first published in 2004;
reprinted by permission.

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