Ellis Island: The famous New York Island was the arrival point for thousands of immigrants.

WE NEED RUMBLIN’, NOT RAMBLIN’

Even though legendary folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who performed here in Santa Monica at McCabe’s last Sunday, was close to Woody Guthrie and sang his songs, met Dylan at Woody’s bedside and mentored him (Bob even copped Jack’s hesitation high nasal singing style), and most in the folk community admired the way he turned his back on being a doctor from Brooklyn and ran away with the rodeo at 14, the archetype wandering minstrel never got too heavy politically.

Too bad. Because he’s part of the old guard who mostly did, and we need those voices now, and especially new voices. We need our artists to step forward boldly and call out the eroding of our democracy, the blatant and condoned racism, the economic subjugation. And for the most part, they’re not.

Music is what I know and what I pay the most attention to. So maybe filmmakers and writers and painters have been better at addressing pressing current issues… but I’m not aware of it. But where are the troubadour poets?

They used to be the leaders we could look to, to shine a light on social injustices. Many of Ramblin’ Jack’s contemporaries in the ‘50s and ‘60s did — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Utah Philips, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, Woody and of course Dylan. But things have changed.

FINANCIAL COWARDICE

The fan base is more important now than ever. You mostly can’t sell your music outright anymore, via CD or LP or even download (streaming pays a laughable pittance), so you depend for your livelihood on fans coming out to your concerts. If I put out this political song, will I lose half my fan base? Maybe for good? A moral dilemma. Ask the Dixie Chicks.

Radio and television used to be the vehicles for getting your music heard, but no more. Social media is critical, but you also get the extremists and crazies weighing in, guaranteed. Is the exposure worth more than the vicious vilification, when your song takes a side?

Not saying that political courage is not out there. But it is harder to find. And it would seem most of the big names are falling short.

Bruce is always good for the occasional zinger, and he released one written by Joe Grushecky just for the Orange Obama-nation, “That’s What Makes Us Great.” The Killers’ Brandon Flowers cold-called Spike Lee to direct the video for their song this year, “The Land of the Free,” and Green Day’s gloves-off “American Idiot” was written for George W. in 2004 but has seen a resurgence, especially in Britain, since Trump took office.

GIVE THEM A PASS?

The Old Guard, they did their duty, wrote and sang their consciences, back when protest could get you shot, most aren’t so willing to rumble in their 70s or 80s as they were in their 20s. Ramblin’ Jack is 87.

But Willie Nelson is 86 and still Willie, God bless him. He speaks and sings his mind. After the I.R.S. has come after you with all guns blazing, who do you fear? His latest, excellent album (he seems to be getting a second, or eighth, wind these last few years, with a string of four good albums), “Ride Me Back Home,” includes the moving Guy Clark song “Immigrant Eyes,” and the video of it was just released. It made me think.

One of the first thoughts was, “Nelson” — I wonder where his immigrant forebears came from. Ireland? Sweden? England? Scotland? Turns out he had a direct ancestor named Nelson who fought in the Revolutionary War (on our side, I think), but his mother was three-quarters Cherokee. So unlike most of us, Willie has some standing to be looking at these issues from the native side. Almost all the rest of us are immigrants, even the Mayflower families.

ELLIS ISLAND

Is where the video begins, with photos and film, reminding us that leaving home, your language, family and friends and everything familiar, to travel thousands of miles to some place you know only as an idea, with hope, faith and conviction and the dream of freedom but no assurance that you will be allowed to stay (more than 200,000 Germans were sent home from Ellis), has been our entire history. You look at all those motley faces and colorful clothing from every corner of the earth (“old Ellis Island was swarming, like a scene from a costume ball”) and you realize they too were condemned at the time as strange, probably dangerous,  “unworthy” to be U.S. citizens. The song refrains to “my grandfather’s immigrant eyes,” and in the next to last line remembers that “he gave me the gift of this country,” and that’s when I got emotional.

Isn’t that true for almost all of us? But do we think of it that way, or take it for granted? With our schizophrenic history and our dark periods including right now, I think most of us still realize that this is a great country, unique in history, still trying to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded.

MY GRANDPARENTS

Three of four came from Germany in the early 20th Century. They had all died by the time I was born and I know almost nothing about them. But at that moment at the end of the song I realized they had indeed given me the gift of this country. I think all immigrants understand that they are trying to find not only a better life for themselves, but for all their generations of family to come.

Sometimes all the political wrangling in the world can be better said, humanely, in 4:44.

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 33 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at  therealmrmusic@gmail.com

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3 Comments

  1. “Send love or rebuke him”
    Sending love to you from one immigrant to another.

    My grandparents gave up everything they knew and loved to come to the promised land. The horrible hardship was worth it and life was better here. Although I never saw them express much joy their children and grandchildren made them proud.
    As they looked back at the beautiful Europe they left behind become shambles of death and destruction, they knew so well their decision was the right one.
    I’ve always wondered how that could of happened and now I see it beginning here.
    “Come gather around people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown”

  2. I saw Ramblin Jack at McCabes Sunday night. I first saw him at the legendary Ash Grove in 1959 or 1960. Some of the songs were very political, mostly Woodys, and later Bob Dylans. “Ludlow Massacre,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “1913 Massacre,” come to mind. Also Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Jack has always focused on the music itself. He has borrowed from others as to style and his stories about Rodeos, Trucks, Sailboats, are much loved by so many, including myself. He doesn’t write much, seems to know his limits, but he is the most authentic musician, I have ever experienced on stage. He seemed tired Sunday. It’s hard to see him slow down but I can’t help loving the guy. Hang in there, Jack. Nothing is forever, but as the song says, “Music Alone Shall Live, Never to Die.” I like to think like this. I’ll bet you do too.

  3. Willie receives copyright royalties going back to the 1950s, unless one of his many bankruptcies have taken some away. Twenty-five number-one hits, most that he wrote.
    Still selling millions of records, and concert money like a river of gold.

    Willie has bought five huge custom buses over the years, insures it and his entourage, and pays at least one person to drive. God only know how many of his tens of millions of fans worldwide would travel half-way around the world to spend a few minutes in that bus.

    jack Elliot, not so much. Jack drives himself from gig to gig, sometimes 800 miles in a day, as was the case when I saw him in Eureka Springs, Arkansas back around 2000, after he drove from a concert in New Mexico the night before.

    Jack isn’t known outside folk circles because Jack never wrote a song that anyone ever hummed or tapped a toe to, much less bought. So, no royalties.

    Instead, Jack pays royalties for performing songs others wrote. Pays royalties, and relies on word-of-mouth and a small-but-loyal fan base to fill a few hundred concert seats, because, again, not one hit record, ever. But he won a Grammy for his art in this century, which is something, if not hummable.

    Jack’s biggest gig without a doubt was the Rolling Thunder Review (where I saw him in Oklahoma City in ’75 or ’76), sharing the stage with a dozen or so musicians who were all more famous than him–except maybe Scarlett Rivera, but her red hair and amazing fiddle on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ playlist stood out more than crooked old Jack and his Woody nasal tones. At least Kinky Friedman had a hit with Asshole from El Paso.

    So, yeah, Jack looks tired. He went to sleep on stage in Eureka Springs and he had to apologize half-way through his set and go to bed. Eight-hundred miles, and straight from his car to the stage, road food, probably whisky on the road, probably no bathing, no driver, no entourage, for whatever the gate was that he shared with Arlo and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Big Smith and the Camptown Ladies. in a small 100-year-old auditorium in the Ozarks.

    Still, he can party. After one of his gigs in Okemah at the Woody Festival (happening again next week, 100 Interstate 40 miles east of OKC), he went home with folks who I know there, had a grand old time partying hardy. and seemed quite taken by his host’s mother who had to be quick on her feet, from what I heard a few days later. And down the road he drove.

    Anyway, Willie and Jack are about the same age, but we shouldn’t expect Jack to start any Farm Aid movements when just us folkies know he’s out there. It’s apples to oranges, Whiskey River versus Pastures of Plenty with an ironic twist.

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