Ramblin’ Jack and “Don’t Think Twice”

Elliot Charles Adnopoz was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 1, 1931. Although his birth name and location are not generally associated with cowboys, the boy became fascinated with cowboys and at the age of 15 ran away from home to join a rodeo. Eventually, he would achieve a more cowboy-like handle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Ramblin’ Jack

The folksinger reportedly got his nickname from Odetta’s mother commenting on how Ramblin’ Jack tells rambling stories. But it is as an interpreter of folk songs that we recognize the man, who was largely influenced by his connections with Woody Guthrie.

Elliott’s daughter made an excellent documentary about Ramblin’ Jack’s career and their relationship. It is worth tracking down the 2000 film, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.

“Don’t Think Twice”

When thinking about Ramblin’ Jack’s songs, it is difficult to pick a favorite. But it is hard to top his interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

Elliott tells a story about being snowbound, stuck in a cabin for three days after his wife ran off with another man. In the cabin, he had firewood, a bottle of whiskey, and a Bob Dylan record. So, in his pain, he listened to “Don’t Think Twice” for three days.

Finally, the snow melted and Elliott drove to New York City and went to the Gaslight, where it was open mic night. There, Elliott began playing the Dylan song he had learned in the cabin. Suddenly, in the dark audience, a man stood up. It was Dylan, who yelled, “I relinquish it to you, Jack!” Elliott finished the song, and he has played it ever since.

Elliott provides a weariness to “Don’t Think Twice.” Instead of interpreting it as an angry breakup song, he gives voice to an older man looking back through some years with regret. “Don’t Think Twice” is a great song when Dylan sings it; but it is a different great song with Elliott’s voice.

Below, Elliott plays “Don’t Think Twice” in 2008. Check it out.

Ramblin’ Jack remains an American treasure. Earlier this year, Folk Alliance honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

What is your favorite Ramblin’ Jack Elliott song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Epic Beauty of Tom Russell’s “The Rose of Roscrae”

    I’m a sucker for a good concept album, with albums like Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger (1975) and Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999) ranking among my favorite albums of all time. Now, I can add to that list with one of the best albums of 2015, Tom Russell‘s The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West.

    My friend Sid introduced me to Tom Russell’s music many years ago, and while I have been a fan, his new album really blew me away. Spanning 2 CDs, the ambitious project tells the story of the character of Johnny Dutton, tracing his life from his teenage years in Ireland in the 1880s — when he is chased by the father of his love the Rose of Roscrae — through his travels through the American West, where he becomes an outlaw known as “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce,” and through other parts of the world.

    Like Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger and Stuart’s The Pilgrim, Russell’s Rose of Roscrae features a broken-hearted man through troubled times as he seeks redemption, but the album also gives us the point of view of the central woman too. The title song is a haunting ballad that appears in various forms through the saga.

    Russell weaves together an interesting story, including fictional and real-life characters. Although the main character appears to be fictional (even though there was a real-life Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce who inspired a character in a Kevin Costner movie), the story interweaves with real characters, as in the case of Johnny’s redemption through an encounter with Joseph Dutton leading him to a real American Saint, Father Damien.

    The story is told with original songs interwoven with other songs you will already know, including contributions from other artists as well as older recordings. Thus, the album features the voices of Joe Ely, Dave Olney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Lead Belly, Johnny Cash, and even the actual voice of Walt Whitman. The second CD gives us more of Rose’s view of events through the beautiful voice of Maura O’Connell.

    Of course, despite the story and the guests, the album would not work if the music did not rise to the occasion, and it certainly does, covering a broad range of styles — including country, Irish, Mexican, and cowboy songs. As in the case of many other concept albums, certain musical themes are repeated throughout the set, so they need to be strong songs that bear repeated listening. Songs like “The Rose of Roscrae,” “She Talks to God,” and “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce” carry their weight and hold up well beside classic ballads like “Red River Valley.” Another one of my favorites is “Midnight Wine.”

    I first listened to the album on a long car drive, which may be the best way to take in the expanse of the story from beginning to end. I bought it through an Amazon download the day before the trip, but there is a booklet with more about the story that comes with the CD (and unfortunately, unlike other CD’s, there was no digital version of the booklet with the digital purchase).

    In a fair and just world, Tom Russell’s The Rose of Roscrae would be played on radio stations, have high sales, and win Grammy and other music awards. For now, those of us lucky enough to discover the album will just have to thank Russell, who, freed from the pop music culture, could aim for something higher. As AllMusic notes, “This is his masterpiece.” Below is a video where Russell discusses the creation of the concept and the making of The Rose of Roscrae.

    What do you think of “The Rose of Roscrae”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    World Series Songs: San Francisco Bay Blues

    In honor of a big win by the San Francisco Giants, in this year’s edition of World Series Songs featuring songs related to the championship team’s name or locale, we get the opportunity to look at the timeless song “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Also, check out our past Super Bowl Songs.

    “San Francisco Bay Blues” was written by Jesse Fuller in 1954. Fuller was a type of musician we do not see much of anymore, the one-person band. While it is true today one might find a one-person band using computers and electronics, there was a time before that when a musician would play multiple instruments all at once. I have been lucky a few times to find a one-person band playing at a street fair and found the performances very entertaining. It has been a long while since I have encountered such a performer, making me wonder if these musicians are a thing of the past. But I guess they are still around, and they also have taken on different forms with the advent of technology.

    Jesse Fuller was born in Georgia in 1896 and passed away in 1976 in Oakland, California. After working for a railroad and in a shipyard, he turned to music, playing around the San Francisco bay area where he lived. His most-famous song, “San Francisco Bay Blues” immortalizes his stomping ground as the singer tells about his “best girl” who no longer loves him. In the video below, watch Fuller and his one-man band perform “San Francisco Bay Blues” in 1968.

    “San Francisco Bay Blues” has been covered by a number of artists, ensuring its lasting fame. Eric Clapton performed the song on MTV Unplugged in 1992 during the taping in England. The live album earned six Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.

    Another performer who helped make the song familiar to us is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Below is one of his performances of the song.

    Finally, one knows one wrote a great song when one of the greatest songwriters of the century decides to cover your song. Here is Paul McCartney singing “San Francisco Bay Blues.”

    In the song, the singer wonders about the woman returning and creating a “brand new day.” For those whose teams did not make the playoffs, we will have to wait until spring for our brand new day. And that’s the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite song about San Francisco? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Taxi Driver Music: “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”

    In a recent post, we discussed the link between Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and the movie Taxi Driver (1976). In this post, we consider a musical connection between the movie and another song: Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

    In Taxi Driver, perhaps the one moment a viewer might think that there is a slight bit of hope for Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is when he first courts Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After he charms her into going to a diner for a bite to eat, she quotes, “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher… partly truth and partly fiction… a walking contradiction.” Bickle focuses on the “pusher part,” saying he has never been a pusher, but she explains she brought it up for the “walking contradiction” part. Bickle is amused, and a later scene shows him at a record store, apparently buying the album, which he later gives to her on their next date, which he blows by taking her to see a porno.

    Although we do not hear the song or the name of the song in those scenes, the quote is from Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was off of his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971). The album’s biggest hit was “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” and the album also included Kristofferson’s version of “Jody and the Kid.”

    “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was not a hit for Kristofferson, has held up well through the years. A number of artists have covered the song, including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Lee Lewis (with Kristofferson). When a tribute CD was put together for Kristofferson, they took the song for the title of the CD, The Pilgrim: A Celebration Of Kris Kristofferson. On that album, in the introduction to the title track, Kristofferson explains that he wrote that song “for a good friend of mine, Donny Fritts [Kristofferson’s long-time keyboard player], and Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash. . .” and then he goes on to list a number of people ranging from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Mickey Newbury to “maybe me and I guess my father.” As Kristofferson has aged and seeped into musical legend as one of our classic country elders, the song seems to be more and more about him.

    It is a beautiful song, and while like Astral Weeks it is not completely in sync with the story of Travis Bickle, you can see where Martin Scorsese got a little inspiration from the song. Like “Madame George,” the song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” also contains some of the themes of isolation and loneliness that Martin Scorsese tried to capture in Taxi Driver.

    He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars,
    And he’s traded in tomorrow for today;
    Runnin’ from his devils, Lord, and reachin’ for the stars,
    And losin’ all he’s loved along the way;
    But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse,
    And all he ever gets is older and around,
    From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse,
    The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.

    Like many of Kristofferson’s songs, it works as pure poetry. His lyrics in “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” describe a man of contradictions, leaving much room for interpretation. I have never read an explanation for the “Chapter 33” in the title, but I suspect it is a reference to a man being near the end of his life, just as Chapter 33 will fall near the end of a book. Perhaps that is why the song seems to describe so many of the brilliant artists mentioned by Kristofferson in the introduction mentioned above. May we all be so lucky that the going up is worth the coming down.

    In another performance, Kristofferson interprets the song with a more upbeat version of the song with a full band.

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    D.B. Cooper and Todd Snider

    In 2011, Newspapers reported that the F.B.I. had a “credible” lead in the mysterious case of D.B. Cooper. Once again, though, authorities remained baffled about the identity and fate of the famous hijacker.

    Although I was around when Cooper disappeared, my interest in him peaked with a great song about the hijacker by Todd Snider.

    The Hijacking
    FBI Composite Sketch of “Cooper”

    On November 24, 1971 — the afternoon before Thanksgiving — a man boarded a flight in Portland, Oregon under the alias “Dan Cooper.” The name was later misreported into legend as “D.B. Cooper.”

    On the flight, Cooper handed a note to a flight attendant.  In the note, he claimed he had a bomb and asked for parachutes and $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills.

    At a stop at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, officials met the demands, and Cooper released the passengers. After refueling, the plane once again took off with Cooper and the crew on board. At some point during the flight, Cooper apparently opened a door.  Then, he parachuted out of the plane with the cash into the night and a raging storm.

    Cooper was never found, and in later years various discoveries contributed to the puzzle. For example, in 1980, a boy found some packets of the ransom money on the banks of the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington. Through the years, other findings have often raised speculations.  But usually it would turn out the evidence was not connected to the hijacking.

    In 2011, reports indicate that the F.B.I. identified a suspect in the case, although he is now dead. They are doing further investigation, so we will have to wait and see whether there is a real breakthrough or just another false lead like all the others.

    June 2016 Update:  In June 2016, the FBI closed the case on the hijacking, leaving the mystery of D.B. Cooper unsolved.

    Todd Snider’s Song

    The best thing about the Cooper news is that it gives me a chance to post one of my favorite Todd Snider songs, aptly named “D.B. Cooper.” Todd Snider is a singer-songwriter who tells great stories with his songs. Snider has noted that one of his greatest influences is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and it shows in his music and presentation.

    A Washington Post recent review of Snider’s latest live CD, Todd Snider Live: The Storyteller, explains that Snider may be “the most likable man in music.” The article reports that Snider is “one hell of a performer, having built up a cult following thanks to nearly 20 years of concerts that double as side-splitting storytelling sessions.”

    Snider’s song “D.B. Cooper” from the CD Happy to Be Here (2000) recounts the story of D.B. Cooper fairly accurately.  He does combine a bit of poetic license and childhood memory to make the tale an excellent song.

    In writing the song, Snider perhaps found a small connection to D.B. Cooper, who began his strange journey at an airport in Portland, Oregon.  On October 11, 1966, Snider was born in Portland.

    And perhaps because the hijacking occurred in the 1970s and the song was released prior to the events of 9/11, one accepts the tradition of making the outlaw a hero a little bit more than we might have at another time. “Not far away from the City of Roses / A light shined from a house out in the rain / It was D.B. Cooper / Drinking champagne.”

    You may hear the original full-band version from the album at this link.

    What do you think happened to the real D.B. Cooper? What is your favorite Todd Snider song? Leave a comment.

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