Before Jack Elliott got the moniker “Ramblin'” (apparently from folk musician Odetta’s mother), he was drawn to the image of the American cowboy, attending rodeos in Madison Square Garden and eventually running away (at age fifteen) to join the rodeo circuit. But ever since he came onto the folk scene in the 1950s, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has embodied it. I Stand Alone, albeit a 2006 on Anti, could have been recorded a few months after he left MSG as a reborn adolescent.
Although he brings along a few notable modern names, I Stand Alone is a straightforward folk album that could be called Folk Music for Dummies. That’s not meant as an insult: This may be one of the most authentic folk-music experiences of the twenty-first century.
Elliott, who has claimed half-jokingly that he doesn’t remember writing more than five songs, makes his Anti debut without much original music. All except for the final track, “Woody’s Last Ride” with special guests Flea, DJ Bonebrake, Nels Cline and Ian Brennan (all of whom appear on multiple songs), every song is either credited to legends, such as Butch Hawes and Cisco Houston, or a traditional. What distinguishes I Stand Alone is how Elliott’s character shines through in each of those traditional songs.
The album’s opener, a revisit to the Carter Family’s “Engine 143,” talks about a character who vows, “I want to die for the engine I love/ engine a hundred-forty-three.” And Butch Hawkes’s “Arthritis Blues” is a hard-luck tale about “all kinds o’ trouble, gonna find you somehow.” This theme suits Ramblin’ Jack better than the guitar strap that’s laced over his shoulder, but just when it seems as if the song could be passed off as his own, he breathes, “If I live to be forty-three, you’ll find me running like a Model T.” The following song, “Old Blue” finds Elliott singing simple verses in complicated syncopations, all the while showing off his guitar-picking skills.
The next three tracks keep the album rolling: Corin Tucker echoes Elliott in “Driving Nails in My Coffin”; Elliott takes on new tones in “Rake & Ramblin’ Boy”; and the last of the first half is a bold undertaking, Hoagie Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues” about racial prejudice. Anti is anything but the usual suspect for releasing authentic folk, but it might be the reason this album sags a bit after making a big splash with its first six tracks.
I Stand Alone album stream
“Rake and Ramblin’ Boy” stream