Mark April 7th on your calendars because folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is rolling into town with a new album titled A Stranger Here. Now 77 years old, he has lived with Woody Guthrie, mentored a young Bob Dylan, and performed with Phil Ochs. His career stretches back to the late 1950s and his legacy as an influential folk artist and interpreter of traditional songs is secure.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a travelin’ man who collects forgotten and unique songs. He has usually stayed within the country and folk traditions, but here he travels in a different direction. He resurrects ten classic blues songs from the depression era in The United States and breathes new life into them.
“Rising High Water Blues” sets the tone of the album. Elliott’s voice may have lost a little power and tone over the years, but he is still more than competent and easily slips into a classic blues style. His acoustic guitar runs counterpoint to an almost honky tonk piano. While it may sound a little bit more modern than Blind Lemon Jefferson’s original, it does quickly establish the fact that he can give a powerful interpretation of the songs that were relevant around the time of his birth.
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was a haunting blues creation by Rev. Gary Davis. This song of death visiting the members of a family captures the pain of the depression era well. “Death don’t have no mercy in this land / Come to your house but won’t stay long / Look in your bed and your mother gone.” Elliott may not have the religious background of Davis, but he is still able to maintain its ominous feel.
“Soul Of A Man,” originally sung in a dark and painful manner by Blind Willie Johnson, is stripped down to almost acoustic guitar and drums which gives the tune a unique feel. It is a demonstration that he can still leave his imprint upon a classic song.
“The New Stranger Blues” has been interpreted by many artists over the years, including a wonderful version by Taj Mahal. It serves as almost a retrospective of his career. “I’m a stranger / Just blowed into your town.” He has traveled thousands and thousands of miles and performed in many forgotten towns during the course of his life.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott remains an American storyteller extraordinaire. The songs contained on A Stranger Here average over seventy years old, but given the current state of the American economy, they still resonate today. The album is a welcome addition to his catalogue and legacy. Leave a light in the window because Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is about to blow into town.