For the record

Folk giant Ramblin' Jack Elliott lays down a special set of short takes.

PLAY ’EM COWBOY Elliott has spent five decades wrangling American songs.

PLAY ’EM COWBOY Elliott has spent five decades wrangling American songs. Photograph courtesy of Anti-Records

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott rarely cares for his own recordings, and his new one is no exception. “People tell me they like it,” he says with the rasp and wheeze of a hard-living 74-year-old. “But all I hear is mistakes.” Perhaps by nature, the folk troubadour’s ragtag minstrelsy is more appropriate for the stage—or barroom or street corner—than the studio. But I Stand Alone, his Anti- Records debut, shuns rehearsed perfection and familiar repertoire. “These songs aren’t for tourists,” Elliott says with pride.

Like Elliott, I Stand Alone is erratic and somewhat ragged. The album is hardly an essentials collection, featuring newly captured fragments of obscure songs mostly less than two minutes long. “They’re like snapshots you might stick on a refrigerator,” Elliott says, continuing in a phony radio announcer’s voice: “Snatches from the past!” He chuckles through a cough and then admits, “I couldn’t remember all the verses. That’s why they’re so short.” The album unearths forgotten gems, mostly about death and loss, such as the Carter Family’s “Engine 143” and Cisco Houston’s “Old Blue.” The traditional number “Rake & Ramblin’ Boy” ends with the spoken lines “Now when I die, don’t bury me at all / Just place me away in alcohol / My .44 beneath my feet / Tell everyone I’m just asleep.”

I Stand Alone, much like Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, is the first chapter in Elliott’s career epilogue, and perhaps the album that will render him hip. Often described as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the singer lost his mind to Madison Square Garden rodeos when he was a teenager in the ’40s, ran away from his Brooklyn home at age 15 and eventually transformed himself into a cowboy balladeer. He spent four years as Guthrie’s sidekick in the early ’50s, and as many decades busking and gigging throughout Europe and North America. A master fingerpicker and ace storyteller, he was a major inspiration to artists associated with the folk and rock & roll movements of the ’60s, including Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Jerry Garcia. Never much of a tunesmith—“I’ve written maybe five songs,” he says—Elliott’s knowledge of the American canon is as vast as the ground he covered traipsing from show to show.

But that’s not why he’s called Ramblin’ Jack. He got the tag in the early ’50s during a visit with folksinger Odetta, whose mother commented on his incessant prattle. To this day, he can’t seem to answer a simple question without veering into tangents on random topics such as global warming, the living habits of Texans and Garrison Keillor’s interview style. I Stand Alone benefits greatly from that wandering spirit. Producer Ian Brennan channeled Elliott’s loquacious tendencies by setting up a kind of one-man hootenanny at Red Barn Studio in Big Sur, California. “I sat at his knee and asked him questions, and he played songs in response,” says Brennan. “He hadn’t practiced them at all, really.” Later, Brennan hired a handful of notable musicians, including singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, accordionist David Hidalgo and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, to add spare accompaniment.

“I couldn’t believe a record company wanted to put out something like this,” says Elliott, who shunned recording studios for more than 20 years before 1995. That year, he released South Coast, which won a Grammy in the Traditional Folk category. “I don’t know why they need to categorize it,” he scoffs, then quotes bluesman Big Bill Broonzy: “ 'I never did hear a horse sing!’ If folks sing it, it’s folk music.” Brennan shared Elliott’s concern that I Stand Alone would be ghettoized if it were released on a folk label, a large factor in the decision to go with Anti-, an imprint known for its artist-friendly dealings with iconoclastic veterans such as Tom Waits and Solomon Burke.

Despite his sarcasm, Elliott is a reluctant curmudgeon, mixing his self-criticism with positive observations. “This is the nicest record company I’ve ever had,” he declares. “And albums can make me money.” At his age, recording is probably the only practical way to keep his output (and income) somewhat steady. “I’ve rambled long enough,” he says. “Besides, I hate airports.”

I Stand Alone is out now on Anti- Records.