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Friday, March 18, 2011

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, "Jack Takes The Floor"

Ramblin' Jack Elliott
"Jack Takes The Floor"
Topic (1958)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Classic folk musicians (only classic in a sense of not being the Avett Brothers or other popular modern artists) are often attributed an almost unearthly status. Just like West African griots are respected by society for their overarching grasp of history, so to did the beat generation idolize folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan for their wide breadth of musical knowledge.

No album demonstrates this as well as Elliott’s “Jack Takes The Floor.” Elliott is often considered the middle generation in the family tree of folk legends, with Guthrie being his father and Dylan being his son. On this album, Elliott sings no original tracks, which wasn’t surprising for that era. What sets the record apart is that nearly every track comes with an introduction explaining the song's roots.

From each introduction, the listener can draw a road map of Elliott’s travels across the country. He sings California standards like “San Francisco Bay Blues,” Texas prison songs (“Dink’s Song”), Southern Negro (his words, not mine) tunes (“Black Baby”), and songs from right in his backyard of New York City (“Cocaine”). Jack was truly Ramblin’.

More impressive is his attempt to keep the original version present in his renditions. Elliott, a native New Yorker, put as much Texas twang as he could into tracks like “Ol’ Riley.” The tendency in those days was for white artists to put a friendly caucasian spin on the black mans’ blues (see Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train”), but Elliott would do no such thing (see INTERESTING FACT section, however).

I must warn you that an original version of “Jack Takes The Floor” is nearly impossible to find. Topic Records later released the entire album under the title “Muleskinner,” and added two new tracks: “Old Blue” and “East Texas Talking Blues.” The latter tracks don’t detract from the original material at all, as they were probably recorded during the same session.

Give this record a shot for a primer on classic folk music. Guthrie’s influence is heavy (he even makes an appearance on “New York Town”) and Dylan cites it as one of his biggest inspirations. Along with Elliott, those are three names you can’t disagree with on the topic.

INTERESTING FACT: A “muleskinner” is someone who drove mules, a popular animal to have for tugging boats in canalled areas. More interesting is the variance in versions of this song. The track as performed by Elliott was released in 1930 by country star Jimmie Rodgers, featuring an Uncle Tom-ish black man looking for labor. In 1928 however, bluesman Tom Dickson released “Labor Blues,” a track with nearly the same lyrics but with the black man telling his white boss to stick it.

Salty Dog by Jack Elliott on Grooveshark

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