A former traveling partner of Woody Guthrie and one of the most visible keepers of his musical flame, self-made character Ramblin' Jack Elliott remains one of the few links to the folk scene of the 1950s and '60s. His colorful anecdotes about Guthrie and others punctuate The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, an emotional travelogue of Elliott's life, directed by the singer's daughter, Aiyana.
The film incorporates clips from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax's obscure 1961 film "Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass," and a 1971 sequence shot by D.A. Pennebaker for a never-completed re-enactment of Guthrie's life story, featuring Elliott, Kris Kristofferson and Odetta. The latter's rendition of "900 Miles" is included on this soundtrack, as is Guthrie's "Candy Man/Talkin' Sailor Blues," from Lomax's film.
Elsewhere, an introduction by President Clinton precedes a mournful 1998 performance by Elliott of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre" (which Elliott also performed on the recent 'Til We Outnumber 'Em concert album). Other noteworthy moments on this quietly enjoyable disc include a raw 1998 rendition of the traditional "Cuckoo"; "Acne," a 1961 duet with Bob Dylan; "Railroad Bill," a 1953 studio recording by Elliott and Guthrie, with blues harpist Sonny Terry; and "Take Me Home" (RealAudio excerpt), a 1969 duet between Elliott and Johnny Cash.
Elliott outdoes himself with a 1971 performance of the bluegrass standard "Muleskinner Blues" (RealAudio excerpt), from Cash's television show. As guitarist Norman Blake and banjoist Randy Scruggs pick out the melody, Elliott holds out a high, lonesome note, a la Bill Monroe, for about 35 delightful seconds. It's surprising and very sweet.