One of the most annoying things about being a voracious consumer of music, especially an unemployed, almost broke and never exactly flush with cash when employed voracious consumer of music, is that I'm constantly coming across albums and performers that I haven't heard before (or have heard a long time ago and hear differently now) in which I become interested...but don't have the resources to hunt the music down and buy, or go see perform, or whatever.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to a documentary I caught last night on the Sundance Channel, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, about the noted (and notorious) folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Now, I had heard of Elliott, but that's all- I knew he was a good friend and contemporary of Woody Guthrie, and heavily influenced Bob Dylan, but that's all. This documentary sheds a lot of light on his career and his accomplishments...and also paints a not-so-flattering picture sometimes of a person who was determined to remain footloose and free spirited, no matter what the cost to his career or family life. But even though there was plenty to dislike about the man, this film makes it clear how talented and likeable he was when he wanted to be, and I was blown away by a lot of his singing and playing, and enjoyed the performances that were shown. One great clip we get to see is an appearance on the Johnny Cash Show (will someone please get this program out on DVD, immediately if not sooner?), in which Elliott sits and tunes for at least a minute and a half while Cash looks on, amused...but the song they sing together is worth the wait. If you're a big Bob Dylan fan, you should probably check this out as well...Zimmy's a constant presence throughout. But be warned- Elliott has a definite ax to grind with Mr. Zimmerman, who imitated and refined Elliott's stage persona and performance style while buddying up with him...until he hit it big, after which he completely abandoned Elliott, to the point where Jack wasn't even invited to the all-star Woody Guthrie tribute, which Dylan headlined, after the great singer's death. Dylan did try to reconcile later, and included him on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-70s...but the relationship fell apart again. The general consensus is that Dylan owes Elliott far more than he's repaid, and there's a great interview segment with Arlo Guthrie (who sounds like he has a bone or two with Dylan himself) flat-out stating that "Without Ramblin' Jack Elliott, there wouldn't be any Bob Dylan".
Another dimension to this film is that it was directed by Elliott's daughter by his fourth wife, Aiyana Elliott, who grew up with her Dad always on the road and had little contact with him after her parents divorced. A great deal of the proceedings are spent with Ayana attempting to have several talks with her father, who is prone to, well, ramble and free associate. There's a funny/sad scene in which they drive, in Pater Elliott's RV, to the location of the house where they all lived for a few years as a family...but Elliott has forgotten where it was. While Aiyana doesn't come to any real reconciliation with her Dad, you get the feeling that she knows him better, or as much as anyone can know the mercurial Elliott, and realizes perhaps (again, in the words of Arlo) "maybe she just wasn't meant to know him", or at least like she thought she did.
Anyway, Elliott's music has definitely aroused my curiosity, especially in the two records he did on Warner Bros./Reprise (you know how I am) in 1969 and 1970. Elliott himself is a fascinating individual, as charismatic and rascally as he is obtuse and difficult, and he seems to have settled into his old age with resignation, if not always acceptance, about his lot. He still performs, and is excellent in the recent clips shown, in particular one that shows a stellar rendition of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", one of my fave Dylan songs. If you're inclined to like folk music, or pop music history, or just want to watch the family drama unfold, then you should seek this out. I hope to see it again before its run on Sundance is over.