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ramblin' jack elliott, "912 greens"

[I wrote this in 1998. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.]

"'Round about 1953
I went down to New Orleans
Perhaps I should say, many years ago"

Ramblin' Jack Elliott had just turned 22 in the summer of 1953, when the events took place which he chronicles in "912 Greens" (assuming they did take place, which is somehow both irrelevant and crucial). To be honest, I'm not sure he was "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" yet, 'round about 1953. He first recorded the song for the album Young Brigham, which was released in 1968. Thirty years later, the song is as timeless as when it was recorded. The story Elliott relates always happened "many years ago."

In "912 Greens," Elliott tells the tale of his trip south with some buddies to look up Billy Faier, "a 5-string banjo picker" who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The vocals are casual; Elliott doesn't sing until the very last stanza, instead he just talks over a lovely guitar accompaniment, and the lyrics feel made up on the spot. It is impossible to imagine Jack sitting down with a pencil to put the words on paper. At times he stumbles a bit, repeats himself, and chuckles under his breath as he remembers some moment from his adventures. Even as he spins his story, adding just the right detail to bring matters to light, he suggests that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other stories he could tell if he only had the time. As he says about Billy Faier,

"And the way we found him,
well that was a whole 'nother song
Let's just say we found Billy Faier"

Elliott was born in Brooklyn in 1931. His name at the time was Elliott Adnopoz. Apparently he wanted something different than might be expected for a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and so (depending on which story you believe, and there are many) he ran off to join the rodeo when he was still a teen. Somewhere along the way he changed his name to Buck Elliott; later he became "Jack" and later still, "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" (by which time he had indeed rambled). Also along the way he switched from traveling with a rodeo to traveling with Woody Guthrie, who was nearing the end of the "healthy" years that preceded his succumbing to Huntington's Disease. Woody and Jack had adventures; Elliott later became known as the premier interpreter of Guthrie's work, and for much of his early career he was perhaps known as much for being the heir to Guthrie's folk tradition as he was for anything. Clearly, Elliott Adnopoz had reinvented himself.

You could only get to 912 Toulouse Street by climbing over a fence. Once you got over, you found a concrete patio, in the midst of which was a banana tree. "Although I never did see no bananas hanging on it, as they said, it was a banana tree." Elliott is reinventing himself; his friends are reinventing reality. And succeeding: "as they said, it was a banana tree" is good enough for Jack. The house itself featured a balcony "that connected all the various different musicians' different various pads." That balcony is where reinvention takes place.

The sense of community in "912 Greens" is overpowering. Ramblin' Jack Elliott ... it sounds like the moniker of the last of the independents, a man with no home except the horizon. But when Jack sets off to ramblin', it's with his friends Frank and Guy, and they meet up with Billy Faier, who lives in a house where all the people and all the pads are connected. What makes this adventure so enticing is the ease with which Jack and the rest become friends, comfortable with each other and their different various pads. After a "tropical rainstorm" (I could talk about the three-legged cat, but that's a whole 'nother essay) in which Jack and "this girl there that had once been an ex-ballet dancer" (a bottomless phrase, to have once been an ex-anything) dance naked around the banana tree, everybody commences to "drinkin' Billy Faier's wine and gettin' acquainted." As Elliott talks and picks his guitar, gradually we realize that "gettin' acquainted" is the most important thing in the world. The various different people have different various pads, but the best part comes when we move onto the balcony and see our connections.

The sun comes up, everyone goes home over the back fence. "Stayed around 3 weeks in New Orleans," Jack tells us, "Never did see the light of day." It was many years ago. It could have been last month. And then he rambles. "And I never have been back," he adds. But every time Ramblin' Jack Elliott sings "912 Greens," everytime he comes to new people, everytime he "gets acquainted," he is indeed back in New Orleans.

As are we, back in New Orleans, when we listen to the song. There is no more beautiful ode to getting acquainted.

what i watched last week

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956). A great movie that admittedly snuck up on me. I’d only seen one Bresson before this (Au Hasard Balthazar), which I appreciated more than I liked, and A Man Escaped is often mentioned as the ultimate Bressonian work. It may well be. But it is engrossing throughout, which is not something you’ll hear before seeing it. (The people I read were more on the line of, “it’s great, but give it time, it’s slow, be patient, don’t quit on it too soon”.) It was fun to see how wrong those warnings were, at least for me. It’s a prison escape movie that strips things down to elementals, and sure, it’s nice to kick back once in a while with Steve McQueen and his motorcycle in The Great Escape, but A Man Escaped doesn’t need flamboyant action scenes. The tension the movie creates is entirely down to the nuts and bolts of the escape attempt. It’s almost like a caper film, where we see exactly how things are planned, then watch to find out what works and what goes wrong. #86 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. (I’m not sure I’ve seen a better movie than this from 1956, but the rest of the Top Five of ‘56 would include, in alphabetical order, Attack!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killing, and The Searchers.)

orphan black, season one

Here’s a show that’s easy to obsess over, but first you have to know it exists. It’s on BBC America, made in Canada, and I assume it gets low ratings, although they may be good enough for BBC America, since it’s been renewed for a second season. The basic setup is a cross of science fiction and mystery: Sarah Manning sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a moving train, and spends the early part of the season trying to figure out why that other woman existed. We find out soon enough … there are only ten episodes in the season, and the show works at a breakneck pace anyway, so it doesn’t take long for Sarah (and the audience) to find out she is one of a set of clones.

There’s a plot twist happening just around every corner, yet for the most part Orphan Black maintains some connection to reality. The clones are real people, and we learn a lot about them over the course of the season. The writing is strong, and the actors are up to the challenge of delivering those lines. I’d argue that Orphan Black isn’t particularly atmospheric … there aren’t a lot of special effects beyond getting the same actress to appear twice or more in the same picture, and the look is fairly generic (it’s shot in Toronto, and with a little effort you can tell it’s Toronto, but the fact that it’s not immediately obvious demonstrates that atmosphere isn’t really the point).

If what I’ve described sounds appealing to you, then you ought to check this out when it makes its inevitable appearance on disc and streaming. In scale, it’s about on the level of something like Lost Girl, which also combines good writing and an excellent performance by Anna Silk in the lead, but Lost Girl is more into the supernatural/fantasy genre (the title character is a succubus), which doesn’t appeal much to me. (That’s not a knock on the series, which was good enough to keep my attention for a while until the disconnect between my tastes and the show’s setting became too great.)

Orphan Black, the series, gets a B+. I look forward to it each week, I don’t fall behind on episodes, and the narrative and characters are interesting. There is one thing that raises Orphan Black above its own level though. Her name is Tatiana Maslany, and no, I hadn’t heard of her, either, even though she’s been in TV since 1997 and in movies since Ginger Snaps 2 in 2004 (I’ll have to watch that one again, now that I know who she is). She’s won an acting award at Sundance … she’s been around, and she’s only 27. She gets the showy part here, playing (at least) seven different clones. There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently. Sarah is British and a con artist, Beth is Canadian and a cop, Alison a soccer mom from Canada, Cosima an American PhD student in biology, and then there’s Helena from Ukraine and Katja from Germany. Each of these characters is distinct from the others; you are never lost, you always know who you are watching (makeup and wigs help, of course, but this is largely due to Maslany’s skills).

It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.

Suffice to say that Tatiana Maslany is giving one of the great performances ever on television. It’s doubtful the major award winners will notice (I’m still waiting for Emmy Rossum to get an Emmy). She’s up for a Best Actress in a Drama award from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, which is something, although given her more well-known competition (Claire Danes, Vera Farmiga, Julianna Margulies, Elisabeth Moss, and Keri Russell), she must be considered a long shot. If Orphan Black gets a B+, Tatiana Maslany gets an A.