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Warmth, Affection Power Elliott’s Versions of Songs : RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT: “Me & Bobby McGee”; Rounder ***

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If you could judge singers by their taste in songs, Jack Elliott would be among the most acclaimed figures of the modern pop era.

In this retrospective alone, he offers up such folk and country gems as Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

However, Elliott’s versions of most of these songs are far from definitive. In places, they’re almost amateurish--in the kindest sense of the word. His phrasing tends to drift in and out of focus as he maneuvers through the lines in ways that frequently live up to his nickname.

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So why are songwriters, including Dylan, invariably charmed by Elliott’s renditions?

The answer lies in the affection that Elliott brings to every performance. Whether on stage or in the recording studio, there is a strong, unapologetic love of the material in Elliott’s delivery that makes the music disarming.

Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in 1931, the Brooklyn native began earning his nickname early--running away from home at 14 to join a traveling rodeo. He kept on the move, with music becoming his life force. The main motivation was folk legend Woody Guthrie, whom Elliott befriended during Guthrie’s later years in the ‘50s.

Young Elliott carried on the Guthrie tradition with a marvelous sense of mission, singing Guthrie’s songs with the same obvious love he shows for Dylan or Hardin tunes, but also with a discipline and command that enabled his versions at time to rival Guthrie’s own.

There’s only one Guthrie song (“Talking Fisherman Blues”) on this collection, which features tracks from two Warner Bros. albums Elliott recorded in the ‘60s. But the song shows his feeling for the Guthrie material. Guthrie’s son Arlo even wrote the liner notes for one of the original Warner packages.

In those notes, reprinted in this CD, Guthrie describes the enthusiasm for life and adventure that fills Elliott’s music with such vitality.

“He is one of the last professional ramblers,” Guthrie wrote. “That’s why ‘Ramblin’ is Jack’s first name. Jack’s ramblin’ is by no means confined to geography. He has been more [places] and done more unbelievable things than any 10 men I know.”

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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