American Folk Music has deep roots and a rich history populated with larger-than-life characters who hopped trains and fought for justice, and whose music influenced just about everybody in rock, pop, alt-pop, indie-pop, and klezmo-techno-metal-polka. I wish I knew more of this history, and had more space in which to relate it to you. Instead, I'll instruct you to immediately go see The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, the documentary by Aiyana Elliot about her father's life in music.
It appears that people have been trying to make a movie about Ramblin' Jack for as long as he's been playing guitar. One of the most impressive things about this documentary is the vast amount of film, video, and still photography of him that exists, covering almost his entire career. In every shot he is a natural superstar--handsome, quick-witted, a fantastic singer and guitarist, honest, courageous, and fascinating in all respects. The son of a Brooklyn doctor, he ran away as a teenager to join the rodeo, recreating himself in his fantasy image of a cowboy. He traveled, got a guitar, learned folk music from the folks themselves.
He returned to New York City as Ramblin' Jack Elliott and studied at the feet of folk legend Woody Guthrie. Then he went to London and rode on the Skiffle craze launched by (folk legend) Lonnie Donnegan. About the time the Beatles started ruining Skiffle for everybody, Jack returned to New York City and was pronounced an official Folk Legend--but he was just getting started.
As I start tossing the phrase "folk legend" around, let me make it clear that just about everybody in this film is a folk legend. You've never seen so many folk legends in one place before, and you might never again, seeing as they're all so goddamn old. To drop names: Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson (actor, folk legend, denture wearer), Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and many others say the same thing: If you want to hear a real folk legend, check out Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He's 200 years old and still playing. He knows every folk song ever sung. He plays faster than a steam train and sings louder than a... steam train! He can turn invisible and walk through walls, and his dog can drive a truck. He's larger than life.
The documentary itself is a shining example of Ken Burns 101: Careful, competent editing of an amalgam of archival footage and rambling interviews with scatterbrained old famous people, tied together by narration about how the whole thing is deeply personal and important to the filmmaker. And that's no lie: Aiyana Elliot's agenda is to somehow wrangle some quality time out of her absent father, who was always too busy ramblin' to raise her. Instead of indicting him, however, she constructs a pretty good defense of his deadbeat-dad behavior. Everyone she interviews leaps to his defense, even her mother. Sure, he was chronically irresponsible, but people loved him that way. That's just a sub-plot, though, in the vast story of Ramblin' Jack's life, and I don't want to spoil it by revealing more. Just go, now, and see this movie. Put down the paper, walk towards Cinema 21, see a great documentary, maybe learn something.