WTJU Presents Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with Seth Swingle at The Southern, Aug 26

WTJU is delighted to present the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at The Southern Cafe & Music Hall in Charlottesville on Wednesday, August 26 (details).  Award winning banjoist (and WTJU Folk announcer) Seth Swingle will kick off the concert at 8 pm.

Nobody I know—and I mean nobody—has covered more ground and made more friends and sung more songs than the fellow you’re about to meet right now. He’s got a song and a friend for every mile behind him. Say hello to my good buddy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
Johnny Cash, The Johnny Cash Television Show, 1969

One of the last true links to the great folk traditions of this country, with over 40 albums under his belt, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is considered one of the country’s legendary foundations of folk music.

Long before every kid in America wanted to play guitar — before Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin — Ramblin’ Jack had picked it up and was passing it along. From Johnny Cash to Tom Waits, Beck to Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder to Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead to The Rolling Stones, they all pay homage to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

In the tradition of roving troubadours Jack has carried the seeds and pollens of story and song for decades from one place to another, from one generation to the next. They are timeless songs that outlast whatever current musical fashion strikes today’s fancy.

His tone of voice is sharp, focused and piercing. All that and he plays the guitar effortlessly in a fluid flat-picking perfected style. He was a brilliant entertainer…. Most folk musicians waited for you to come to them. Jack went out and grabbed you….. Jack was King of the Folksingers. Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

There are no degrees of separation between Jack and the real thing. He is the guy who ran away from his Brooklyn home at fourteen to join the rodeo and learned his guitar from a cowboy. In 1950, he met Woody Guthrie, moved in with the Guthrie family and traveled with Woody to California and Florida, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. Jack became so enthralled with the life and composer of This Land Is Your Land, The Dust Bowl Ballads, and a wealth of children’s songs that he completely absorbed the inflections and mannerisms, leading Guthrie to remark, “Jack sounds more like me than I do.”

In 1954, along with folksinging pals Frank Robinson and Guy Carawan, Jack journeyed south through Appalachia, Nashville and to New Orleans to hear authentic American country music. He later made this the basis for his talking song, 912 Greens.

In 1955 Jack married and traveled to Europe, bringing his genuine American folk, cowboy and blues repertoire and his guitar virtuosity, inspiring a new generation of budding British rockers, from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton.

When he returned to America in 1961, he met another young folksinger, Bob Dylan at Woody Guthrie’s bedside, and mentored Bob. Jack has continued as an inspiration for every roots-inspired performer since.

Along the way he learned the blues first-hand from Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie Mcghee and Sonny Terry, Jesse Fuller and Champion Jack Dupree.

He has recorded forty albums; wrote one of the first trucking songs, Cup of Coffee, recorded by Johnny Cash; championed the works of new singer-songwriters, from Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson to Tim Hardin; became a founding member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue; and continued the life of the traveling troubadour influencing Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Tom Russell The Grateful Dead and countless others.

In 1995, Ramblin’ Jack received his first of four Grammy nominations and the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, for South Coast (Red House Records).
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Jack the National Medal of the Arts, proclaiming, “In giving new life to our most valuable musical traditions, Ramblin’ Jack has himself become an American treasure.”

In 2000, Jack’s daughter, filmmaker, Aiyana Elliott produced and directed The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, her take on Jack’s life and their fragile relationship, winning a Special Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival.

Through it all—though agents, managers, wives and recording companies have tried—Jack resisted being molded into a commercial commodity. He played his shows without a written set list or including any songs that did not ring with his gut feeling of what mattered to him.

Ramblin’ Jack’s life of travels, performances and recordings is a testament to the America of lore, a giant land of struggle, hard luck and sometimes even of good fortune. Ramblin’ Jack takes us to places that spur us on to the romance and passion of life in the tunes and voices of real people.

At 84, Ramblin’ Jack is still on the road, still seeking those people, places, songs and stories that are hand-crafted, wreaking of wood and canvas, cowhide and forged metal. You’ll find him in the sleek lines of a long haul semi-truck, in the rigging of an old sailing ship, in the smell of a fine leather saddle.

Photo by Pat Jarrett
Photo by Pat Jarrett

Seth Swingle is an award-winning musician and scholar. A curious and dedicated practitioner of traditional music, he has studied Southern banjo styles with noted folklorist Mike Seeger, given talks and performances of banjo history at universities throughout the South, and is 2-time Virginia State Banjo Champion. He can pick, strum, pluck, and beat upon the banjo in a half-dozen archaic and modern banjo styles and in over a dozen tunings. His new CD, Solo 5- & 6-String Banjo, features Seth playing everything from intricate Irish reels to 19th century waltzes to fiery Appalachian breakdowns. He explains, “the banjo was once the universal American instrument, played by men and women of every class. People used the banjo as a courting instrument, a dance instrument, a stage instrument, a parlor instrument. We have this image today of the banjo as a rural, Appalachian, white instrument, but it was played almost exclusively by African-Americans until the 1830’s, was hugely popular in the urban North-East as early as the 1840’s, and was a respectable middle-class instrument by the 1890’s.” Seth brings the wide and varied history of the banjo to life on stage with music that stretches across the centuries to the earliest transcriptions of banjo music and even to the banjo’s roots in W. Africa.

One of Seth’s biggest musical influences was the late Mike Seeger. An indefatigable teacher, musician, field recorder and folklorist, Seeger influenced generations of old-time and traditional musicians. Through a year-long Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Folklife Apprenticeship, Seth was able to study many Southern banjo styles with him. This apprenticeship instilled in Seth a deep appreciation for the art of performing while informing.

In his search to understand the banjo’s history, Seth has also studied the n’goni, a banjo ancestor, with griot Cheick Hamala Diabaté. A Mandé griot (a trained member of the hereditary musician class) from Mali, Cheick is one of the foremost representatives of traditional Malian music in America, and has explored banjo/n’goni connections with Bob Carlin on their Grammy-nominated album, From Mali To America. As his apprentice, Seth has performed with Cheick at the Kennedy Center, Merlefest, and the 1st Black Banjo Gathering.

After graduating from the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s Degree in Middle Eastern History, Seth received a Fulbright Scholarship to study traditional Mandé music in Mali, W. Africa. In addition to the n’goni, Seth became proficient on the kora, a 21-string African harp capable of complex counterpoint and shimmering cascades of notes. His fluency in French and Bambara have allowed him to immerse himself in Malian society and communicate and play with working musicians throughout Mali. He has performed (in Bambara) at the Festival sur le Niger and on Malian national television.

As an academic and musician, Seth has been an invited lecturer and performer at The Banjo Collectors’ Gathering, the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, and Virginia Wesleyan College. An unabashed frequenter of banjo contests, he has won numerous ribbons including first place in the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention and Appalachian String-Band Festival youth category, two consecutive years as Virginia State Banjo Champion, and has been a finalist in the Clifftop banjo contest.

When not touring, Seth divides his time between Central Virginia and Mali, West Africa.


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