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Songwriter Dan Bern explains the lasting influence of Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Toben Shelby

Much has been said about Ramblin' Jack Elliott over the course of his long career, and it's not just what has been said about the veteran folk singer that's noteworthy, but who said it.

"He's got a song and a friend for every mile behind him," said Johnny Cash, while Bob Dylan once called Elliott "king of the folk singers." Elliott's known, worked with and inspired many iconic names in folk music. A student and friend to Woody Guthrie -- who once said Ramblin' Jack "sounds more like me than I do" -- Elliott is a link between American folk music's past and present.

In what's being billed as his final visit to Alaska, Ramblin' Jack will wrap up a series of shows with a performance Saturday in Anchorage, joined by musicians Dan Bern and Talkeetna's Doug Geeting -- men whose styles, like many contemporary folk artists -- owe quite a bit to Elliott.

"You look at legends going way back, and there was Jack," Bern said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "You know, maybe Jack wasn't as renowned as Woody (Guthrie) or as Bob (Dylan) or as some of those guys, but he was always around. He was part of the scene and I think he fed it as much as it fed him."

Bern's returning to Alaska for what concert promotion company Whistling Swan estimates will be the latest of at least 30 appearances in the state. Last fall, Bern was in Anchorage holding song-writing workshops. This time around, he's sharing the stage with a songwriter who informed Bern's generation of songwriters.

"I probably first heard him in connection with guys like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan," said Bern. He recalled Elliott performing at a Guthrie tribute in Cleveland.

"I've never heard anyone this side of Woody sing a talking blues song (like that) -- it was great just to hear it. It felt like the real deal."

Ramblin' Jack's been credited for helping to pass on Guthrie's musical style to Dylan and Guthrie's own son, Arlo (who'll be visiting next month). That's just a portion of his long career. Elliott, a Brooklyn native turned cowboy singer, turns 82 in August. It's been about 58 years since his debut album "Woody Guthrie's Blues." Those many years of experience and performing have seasoned his distinctive style.

"The music, the guitar and his voice -- I think it's inseparable. It's just such a natural flow," Bern said. "He has such a natural, easy conversational delivery. He can bend the song any way he wants at any point to go with what he wants to say. He can improvise at the drop of a hat and you might never know it."

Bern added that he hopes he will still be at it when he's Jack's age.

If keeping busy has been one of the keys to Elliott's longevity, Bern might be well on his way to a folk career lasting into his 80s too. Last year he released three albums and somehow had time to write and illustrate a book. And even more music's on the way: He wrote a song for the opening day of baseball season (this comes after an entire album about baseball) and said two albums are "in the can" while he works on two more. He's also trying figure out how to release another book he wrote -- a fictional piece about a songwriter who quits music to become a detective. And of course, like many creative types in Los Angeles, he said he's kicking around a few movie ideas.

Bern and Elliott will both be playing full sets at the Anchorage show and then possibly performing together. If that happens, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bern -- he's met Ramblin' Jack Elliott once before but never played with him. He's not quite sure what to expect, but he said he is ready for anything. "It might be a free-for-all, and so much the better."


By Toben Shelby
Daily News correspondent