By Richie Unterberger

When Young Brigham was released in early 1968, Ramblin' Jack Elliott was already a legend of American folk music. He had served as something of a link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, bumming around with Guthrie for literally years in the early 1950s, and in turn becoming one of Dylan's early models in the early 1960s. He had been crucial in introducing American folk music to the British Isles and Europe during extensive ramblings there in the mid-to-late 1950s; Rod Stewart is but one of the future British stars who later acknowledged his debt to Elliott.

    The one thing he had never done was sell many records, despite issuing numerous releases in the dozen years preceding Young Brigham, his first album for a major American label. If Reprise were looking to break Elliott into the pop market, they faced an uphill climb. The singer was already into his late thirties, and unlike virtually every other folk or folk-rock singer of note in the late 1960s, wrote almost none of his own material.

    As it happened, Young Brigham didn't deviate much from Elliott's previous recordings, although light, drumless folk-rock arrangements were used for a few of the tracks. For the most part, Jack sang the same kind of traditional folk numbers and talking-story tunes that comprised the backbone of his entire career. There were some nods to contemporary sounds with covers of songs by Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, yet on "Talking Fisherman" or "Rock Island Line" he sounded about exactly as he would have on a 1955 (or, for that matter, 1995) recording session.

    Still, at least some of the album presented material that was more accessible to a folk-revolutionized populace than Elliott's usual repertoire. The singer had help from a stellar crew of accompanists, including guitarists Eric Hord, Mitch Greenhill, and Mark Spoelstra; Peter Childs on bass and dobro; and Bill Lee, far more known as bassist for the likes of Odetta and Ian & Sylvia (and also as filmmaker Spike Lee's father), donating a bit of organ. Bruce Langhorne played low-key tabla on the cover of "If I Were a Carpenter," probably the most commercial item on the LP, yet also inevitably overshadowed by both the Tim Hardin original and the hit cover by Bobby Darin. Langhorne, a crucial midwife to the birth of folk-rock as a guitarist on sessions by Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Richard & Mimi Fariña, also produced the album. And Elliott's pal Johnny Cash wrote the liner notes.

    While the mood of the record was calm and low-key, some adventurous and downright eccentric ventures were also to be found in the program. "Night Herding Song" would have been a challenge to fit into the playlists of even the most free-form, uncommercial radio stations of the era: opening with nearly a full minute of Elliott's wordless, gargling imitation cattle noises, it was followed by one of his trademark cowboy raps and wholly a cappella singing. "912 Greens," an original Elliott composition, set a goofy, nothing-really-happens spoken monologue about a trip to New Orleans against placid acoustic guitar picking. "Connection" rocked harder than anything else on the LP, its taut country-rock offset by Elliott's almost ludicrously jaunty vocal. This interpretation of a Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition (from the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons) was not a one-off detour for Jack; he was still doing the song in the 1990s, re-recording it for his 1999 album  The Long Ride.

    "Connection," as it happened, would also be covered nearly a decade later by Arlo Guthrie, the subject of Young Brigham's final track, "Goodnight Little Arlo." Elliott had known the son of Woody Guthrie since Arlo was a young boy, entertaining him and other Guthrie children during his visits to Woody in the 1950s. Arlo was by this time also on Reprise Records, and, like Dylan, was already outselling his one-time mentor.

    Young Brigham was admired by critics like Lillian Roxon -- "as for what Jack Elliott has evolved into, the Young Brigham album has it all," she wrote in her Rock Encyclopedia. It didn't sell much, judging by how hard it is to find a copy today, though this CD will finally restore it to wide availability. But it didn't stop Reprise from trying to push Elliott one more time, with their second and last album with the singer, Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks. For that part of the story, check out the CD reissue of that LP, also on Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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