From Woody and Cisco, it was an easy and obvious step to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — I don’t remember how that step got made, but my guess is that I was just thumbing through the records at Minuteman or the Coop, reading liner notes, and this one caught my eye. I still sing eight of the twelve songs on this record, and I’m still amazed at the quirkiness of Jack’s taste — he has been typed as an acolyte of Woody’s and a ramblin’ cowboy singer, but this album includes hillbilly yodeling, string band trios, a Ray Charles medley, a comic Scots dialect song and monologue, “San Francisco Bay Blues” — which most of us heard from Jack before hearing Jesse Fuller’s version — and Rev. Gary Davis’s “Candyman,” which I thought I first heard from Van Ronk, but clearly heard from Jack before that.
Jack remains one of my favorite guitar players, and “Railroad Bill” is one of his classic arrangements. I’m sure I’ve changed it some over the years, but it was the early pieces that got me comfortable with the rudiments of fingerpicking, and a piece that pretty much every urban fingerpicker learned to play in the generation before mine, right after “Freight Train” and before “Buckdancer’s Choice.”
I originally suggested Jack’s source was presumably an obscure black singer and guitarist named Will Bennett, who recorded only two songs, “Railroad Bill” and “Real Estate Blues” in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1929. That’s about all I know about Bennett, but I was recently at the Knoxville Stomp, an event celebrating the early recording sessions there, and people seem to be turning over a lot of rocks, so hopefully we will learn more.
A couple of years later, an internet friend named Paul Stamler pointed out that Jack’s source was undoubtedly Hobart Smith, whose guitar arrangement is obviously what Jack, I, and pretty much everybody else plays. I have no idea if Smith got it from Bennett’s recording, or Frank Hutchison’s, or if it was just floating around the Tennessee/Carolina/West Virginia region. In any case, it’s a great song.