Wall Street Journal Interview: 'A Cultural Conversation With Ramblin' Jack'

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, last musical partner of Woody Guthrie, mentor and model for young Bob Dylan, and sonic grandfather of just about every scruffy-voiced folksinger in the Western world, is now 77 and has just undergone some needed hip-replacement surgery. Unlike most people at that point in life, and well past 50 years in a performing career, he not only has a new CD, "A Stranger Here," out today on Anti-Records, but it's a release that marks a whole new turn in his repertoire -- toward the hard, "deep" blues of the Depression era.

[Rambling Jack] Getty Images

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

"This is the first time I really tried to do something like Blind Willie Johnson," Ramblin' Jack noted in a recent phone interview. "I was always in awe of his music, and never even thought to try it, really, but when they suggested it to me I thought, 'Well, give it a shot.' I've always loved the blues, and especially the type on the new record -- but some of them were so tough that I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to do them."

The suggestion that the veteran singer of cowpoke ballads and protest songs, and teller of rambling, often hilarious personal stories that gave him his nickname, take up darker, bone-cutting acoustic blues came from performer and producer Joe Henry. Mr. Henry has recently produced notable CDs that brought new 21st-century audiences to Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette and Allen Toussaint. While Jack Elliott has always sung lighter, blues-related songster numbers of the "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Don't You Leave Me Here" variety, hillbilly blues like "Salty Dog" and "East Virginia," he has never before ventured into the realm of Lonnie Johnson, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Tampa Red, as he does on the new release. And that is despite having shared stages with so many central, even legendary blues singers during the folk revival.

"Yes, I'd hung out with Mississippi John Hurt, the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet," he recalled in typically picaresque style, "and played a couple of tunes with him . . . and Jesse Fuller, and I met Lead Belly one time, in 1948, when I was only 17. I met Big Bill Broonzy, and Muddy Waters, the first time they each played in England. . . . And when I opened for Reverend Gary Davis at the University of Indiana, we stayed overnight in the same room. He got back from the party afterwards before I did, and he was sleeping sitting up on the bed -- in a suit and tie! I loosened his necktie and laid him down, covered him with a blanket, and he slept -- fully dressed. I'd been honored to describe the scenery out the window for him on the plane ride there." (Davis was blind.)

"I also played with Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry in Felton's Lounge in Harlem when I was 19 or 20. But I wasn't really picking up on the blues that intricately. I remember Brownie scolding me one time because I played a wrong chord. He said: 'Hey, Jack. That's a cowboy chord!'"

While the bluesmen whose songs were taken up for this project were mainly either solo acoustic guitar players and singers, as Jack Elliott usually has been himself, or notable singing piano players (Leroy Carr, Walter Davis), the essential sound of the new record, captured in a series of sessions in South Pasadena, Calif., last summer, is that of a small blues combo. Producer Henry assembled a stellar group of supporting musicians for the back-up, including Greg Leisz on guitar, mandolin and slide Dobro, Van Dyke Parks on piano and vibraphone, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on guitar and accordion, and Ramblin' Jack credits their finesse for making the adventure in new territory easier than he'd expected:

"All I had to do was sing my part; I'm usually a rhythm guitar player. On some of these, I didn't play guitar at all, and I actually played a little lead on John Hurt's 'Richland Women Blues' and 'Ramblers Blues' from Lonnie Johnson -- who I'd also met and done a show with. He was the first guitarist that I was aware of before I even started playing; I used to listen to Lonnie Johnson records on the radio when I was listening to jazz, back before I got into cowboy music and ran away from home in 1948.

Zina Saunders

"It felt like a jam session, done live, with very few repeats. I've done very little playing with other musicians throughout my whole life, and I hardly ever have gone and jammed with people, even when I could have. I'm known to avoid that. But these guys were so good, and they played so beautifully, and it was so tasty, that everything just worked out very sweetly. We worked about nine hours a day, and took about three hours to get each song -- in the basement of a very nice house that used to belong to the widow of the assassinated President James A. Garfield."

The result, some critics were already saying before the album's release, is another "career record," likely to be added to the Jack Elliott titles that have lasted decades, the likes of his live recordings in England in the 1950s, his cowboy-song recordings, and his salutes to Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. Nicely recovered from the hip surgery, Ramblin' Jack is scheduled to perform his new blues repertoire at some select West Coast shows (including San Diego and Los Angeles) in mid-April, and back East (including New York and Cambridge) in mid-May. (For more information, go to www.ramblinjack.com.)

"I'm trying to learn the words better right now," he admitted. "I was just reading them off a paper in the studio -- after listening to them about a thousand times. I don't really know how well I can do without that wonderful band backing me up, but I can't afford to hire them all the time."

The striking vocals on "A Stranger Here" suggest that getting a handle on these blues won't really be a problem.

Mr. Mazor, based in Nashville, writes about country and pop music for the Journal.

Barry Mazor