Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: A Stranger Here
CD Review for The Santa Fe New Mexican
At 77 years old, when Ramblin’ Jack Elliot releases a new album it’s quite an event, especially if it’s a keeper. The legendary Brooklyn-born country-folk singer-songwriter was actually Woody Guthrie’s disciple — and the star of three British-released albums — before Bob Dylan even left Minnesota. But whereas Dylan repeatedly changed the world of popular music in the 60’s and 70’s, Elliot only released two albums between 1968 and 1995 before experiencing a resurgence in the 90’s and 00’s that continues with A Stranger Here.
This earnest country-blues record is at once charming and foreboding; while 2006’s I Stand Alone featured original Elliot songs and a backing band including modern heavyweights from Wilco and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Stranger Here boasts a dusty guitar and piano-led bar-room band and mostly Delta Blues covers, highlighted by menacing versions of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” and Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
Rounding out a year that also included a co-starring role on Dylan’s Together Through Life, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo supports Elliot here on guitar and accordion, along with the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks. Elliot’s voice appears mostly unstrained and captivating on A Stranger Here, at his worst sounding like Grandpa Simpson with a dobro and at his best (speak-singing lines such as “true love covers everything just as the snow covers the cold, cold ground”) like a well-traveled grandfather telling his kids that the journey is all that matters or exists.