(continuation of the aging songwriters tour)
His voice went dry and busted flat just before he got to New Orleans. He coughed once, twice, took a drink of water, raised his right hand to ask for our patience, forced a couple more coughs.
We were patient and a little concerned.
He drank some more water. Ramblin Jack Elliott is 86. He has survived triple bypass surgery, a hip replacement and four marriages.
He was singing the Kristofferson song that Janis Joplin put a big piece of her soul into when his voice quit, took an unscheduled break.
The effort to transport the audience back in history, to the plains of the buffalo in the previous song might have been too much for the octogenarian troubadour who left home at the age of 15 to join the rodeo because he needed cowboy bonafides to become who he needed to be. Jack Elliott grew up in the Bronx, the son of a doctor and a teacher. His music makes people feel better and his stories never end.
There we were on the plains of the buffalo. It was windy, lonesome and hard. The microphone carried the wind and the guitar was the vehicle; bumping along railroad tracks, spinning wheels of a coach, or horse hooves galloping, strutting , strumming , plucking along. We witnessed the violent resolution to a labor conflict.
Then we were in a diesel truck waiting for his voice to return.
Three songwriters have written songs about Ramblin Jack Elliott; Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein and Hoyt Axton.
Jack has been referred to by knowledgeable musicologist as the son of Woody Guthrie and the father of Bob Dylan, but this was before Ancestry.com. He lived and toured with Guthrie in the early fifties and is considered more like Woody Guthrie than Woodie Guthrie. When Dylan was 19 he met Jack while visiting Guthrie in the hospital. Jack became a mentor to Bob.
After touring with Guthrie, Jack moved to Europe for a while. One day he gave a street performance for a group of boys in London. The next day one of these boys bought a guitar. His name was Mick Jagger.
Like the prodigal son Elliott’s voice returned. He tested his vocal strength by talking, or Ramblin.
“Bobby Weir helped Janis with the way she ended the song. I am not so good with the La La. Kristofferson played it, maybe a dozen times for me when we were waiting to go on the Johnny Cash show. Did you know Woody Guthrie wrote an anti-Trump song? He did. It’s true. Now let’s see if I can get this “voice” going.”
That voice, plaintive in its mournful reach, cracking, hitting dry patches and smooth roads, draws the audience into the story of the song, like letting them in on a secret from another world.
It’s a high lonesome slightly nasal cowboy quiet (so as not to disturb the cattle), capable of dramatic, cinema graphic modulation that grabs and manipulates the emotional imagination of listeners lost in the familiar.
He gave that song texture, depth and a true sense of loss and joy. Authentic and rustically aged, his legendary voice is a national treasure.
Sunshine on a saddle.
A songwriters best friend.
Giving lyrics a life.
Simple direct and true.