Ramblin’ Jack Elliott : Jack Takes the Floor (#17)

Jack Takes the Floor | Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)
Topic (USA)
Folk 31:45

“Damn… this guy is really great. He sounds just like Woody Guthrie, only a leaner, meaner one… I felt like I’d been cast into sudden hell.”

It takes a lot to impress Bob Dylan. He has spent his entire life as an iconoclast; never standing on ceremony with those who place him on a pedestal and never suffering fools lightly. But even a great like Dylan has his heroes. When the Jokerman first moved to New York, he was introduced by a friend to the music of folk troubadour Jack Elliott – a man just 10 years his senior but who had already played regularly with his other idol, Woody Guthrie. This was a musician who had not only achieved what Dylan wanted, but had done it without compromising himself, in a way that Bob would emulate in his own way over the coming decades. The two finally met in 1961, their paths crossing in the hospital ward of the dying Guthrie; within months, Dylan, now on his way to becoming an icon, was being described on posters as “The Son of Jack Elliott”. The influence Jack had on him – and, as a result, modern music – cannot be underestimated. And it all started with the playing of one album, roughly recorded in a studio and released on an obscure label.

Discovering the inspirations behind your own heroes can be an eye-opening experience. I was already aware of the influence Guthrie had on Bob Dylan but, despite studying his work at university (yes, really), it hadn’t registered the role that Elliott had played as well. I’ve listened to some recordings of Woody and, despite also being championed by other singers I admire, such as Billy Bragg, his work never had any impact on me. I’m not sure why – like other folk singers of the era, such as Leadbelly, their performances sound so stilted to a modern ear, it is hard to comprehend the impact their songs must have had 60 or 70 years ago. So it was with some trepidation that I approached listening to an album deemed iconic by a man who was an icon to me.

Ramblin’ Jack was given his nickname for a reason; he wasn’t a traveller, riding the rails during the heights of the Depression – he was a man with a gift for the gab. And as the album opens, it becomes clear that this won’t just feature the man singing. Over the top of some gentle strumming and picking of an acoustic guitar, Elliott begins talking about Jesse Fuller, the man who had made the first song, San Francisco Bay Blues, famous. It is a trait that is repeated throughout the album. Initially, it seems to break up the flow but, as the album progresses, and each song is introduced, it draws in the listener, creating a sense of closeness to the performer. You feel you are eavesdropping on a live show rather than a pre-recorded album from almost six decades before. There is a sweetness to Elliott’s introductions as well, as he enthuses about where he discovered the songs and the singers and writers originally behind them. Here is a man who wants to teach others about the folk songs being performed around America at the time; to instil knowledge of a tradition of music. And it works to brilliant effect. As a person who is intrigued by the origins of what I watch and listen to – the development of modern culture – I was fascinated to hear him talk about his own cultural journey. Here I was listening to the influences of the influencer of one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. It doesn’t get more ‘meta’ than that.

The guitar-playing of Ramblin’ Jack is accomplished but never showy; he clearly has the dexterity and, while he will never be a Django Reinhardt, his sound backs the songs perfectly. But it is his voice that strikes the strongest chord. The moment he begins singing the first song, it is clear how much of an impact he had on the young Dylan. If somebody had told an undiscerning listener that this was in fact Bob’s first attempt at recording an album, pre-dating Freewheelin’ by a good five years, it would not be unfair to expect them to accept it. Dylan clearly wanted to emulate Elliott’s style, to the point where he even sings like him. It is quite a jolt to realise that this is in fact a different person entirely. Dylan, the eternal innovator and reinventor, essentially began as a carbon copy of another man. Guthrie may have influenced his songs, but Elliott was the source of his style.

But how do the songs hold up? Opener San Francisco Bay Blues is a wonderful start to proceedings. If the occasional note is a little flat, it only adds to the style which Elliott has built up to this point. But, for a blues song, there is a real jaunt to it. Add it to the songlist of Dylan’s much-maligned Nashville Skyline (a great album, despite its short length) and it would easily sit alongside many of the work there. The second track, Ol’ Riley, has something of a gospel sound to its opening restraint but it doesn’t have the impact of the previous number. While San Francisco Bay Blues has retained a freshness, Ol’ Riley sounds old fashioned.

Fortunately many of the songs have a great sound and keep the pace moving. Whether it is the childish The Boll Weevil, a song about a bug looking for a home, or the slower numbers such as Cocaine, a beautiful song of the struggle against addiction, most of the tracks hit the mark. Perhaps the most interesting – if not the best – is New York Town; a duet with Woody Guthrie. Hearing him speak is surreal (he sounds like a relic from another age, unsure of a recording studio), but to have the two key influencers of Dylan performing together on an album still sends a shiver down the spine (at least for somebody who rates Bob so highly). It may not be the greatest song, but it is slice of history to match the moment the Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins turned up to sing together one night at Sun Record Studios.

This album is one which certainly deserves a place on this list simply for the influence it had on the modern music industry. But, beyond that, the quality of many of the tracks mean that the record earns its place on the merits of the numbers and not just because of its historical context. Anyone wanting to know how pop culture developed needs to start here. Other albums may be better remembered, but few can lay claim to being the beginning of cultural history. This one can.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Jack Takes the Floor here:

Next time: Sarah Vaughan at Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan

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