Ramblin’ Jack and the country blues

12 September 2009

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It seems that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, sometimes described as Woody Guthrie‘s musical heir, should be in his 90s by now. But Woody died young and it turns out that Ramblin’ Jack is only 78, which is, it also turns out, the very best age for making a record of country blues songs.

In other words, A Stranger Here, released earlier this year, a collection of classic country blues songs from the ’30s. Not any old blues songs, but ones chosen by the producer, Joe Henry, to resonate with the present times. And written by some of the great bluesmen, from Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Son House, to Lonnie Johnson, to Furry Lewis (“when Furry signs the blues” sang Joni Mitchell on Hejira.)

If Elliott has a great producer, he is also blessed with a fine band, which includes Van Dyke Parks and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos), and the overall effect is, well, to underscore the timelessness of the songs. Elliott admits on the sleeve notes that the musical selection was made by Joe Henry; he sang the songs he was presented with.

The first track, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues”,  continues a theme in Henry’s production work of music which evokes the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Henry’s recent productions include Elvis Costello’s collaboration with the New Orleans pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint, A River In Reverse, and of Toussaint’s more recent solo record The Bright River, which both have the spirit of New Orleans embedded deep in them. My own favourite on A Stranger Here is Elliott’s version of Soul of a Man, by Blind Willie Johnson, which could easily have given the record its title.

By chance I also recently read an essay by Geoff Dyer, “Blues for Vincent”, in his collection Anglo-English Attitudes, in which – among other things – he reflected on the blues. Dyer’s essays are so rich that reading one is like drinking a glass of dessert wine – slowly, in small quantities, a thing to savour – and this passage helps explain why:

The message of the blues is simple: as long as there are people on earth they will have need of this music. In a way, then, the blues is about its own survival. It’s the shelter the black man has built, not only for himself but for anyone who needs it. Not just a shelter – a home. No suffering is so unendurable that it cannot find expression, no pain is so intense that it cannot be lessened – this is the promise at the heart of the blues.

My related posts:

Singing the blues

Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record

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