For nearly four decades, the SEVA health service organization has served people around the world who are struggling for health, cultural survival, and sustainable communities. A Sanskrit word meaning "selfless service," SEVA was co-founded in 1978 by Dr. Larry Brilliant, Dr. Nicole Grasse, Ram Dass (former LSD pioneer Richard Alpert), and Hog Farmer and Woodstock icon Wavy Gravy (aka Hugh Romney), along with many dedicated individuals from the spiritual, music, and public health communities in and around Berkeley, California. SEVA's fundraising efforts have been directly responsible for restoring eyesight to millions of people suffering from cataract blindness in India, Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Bangladesh and throughout the African continent. SEVA additionally has created programs to support agricultural and refugee relocation work in Guatemala and helps to combat health issues among Native Americans.
Wavy Gravy has been directly responsible for organizing benefit concert fundraisers in support of SEVA's programs and nobody has been more successful at mobilizing the musical communities than he. One of the most memorable benefits occurred in conjunction with SEVA's 20th Anniversary in 1998, when David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, members of the Grateful Dead, Odetta, Iris DeMent, Dan Bern, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Charlie Musselwhite, John Trudell, and various supporting musicians and friends took the stage of the intimate Berkeley Community Theater. Performing several hours of primarily acoustic music that featured plenty of extraordinary collaborations, this benefit, billed as "Sing Out For Seva," would not only raise funds for medical aid in Third World countries, but also provide attendees with a musical experience not soon forgotten.
Possibly the world's most legendary troubadour and one of the last surviving links to the great folk traditions of America, Ramblin' Jack Elliot was one of the many highlights of this memorable night. With a life spent traveling, performing and recording, Elliot has endured as one of the most colorful and oddball characters in all of American music. Born in 1931 as Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn, New York, he became enamored by westerns as a child, regularly attending rodeos, devouring books by cowboy novelist Will James, and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Following his high school graduation and between two failed attempts at college, he began performing around New York's Greenwich Village. In 1950, at the age of 19, Elliott discovered Woody Guthrie while listening to Oscar Brand's radio program, an event that would forever change his life. Determined to learn from him firsthand, Elliott paid a visit to Guthrie's home where he wound up living for two years, absorbing Guthrie's style of singing and his guitar technique. Over the course of the next several years, Elliott traveled and performed with Guthrie, meeting many left-wing artists along the way and becoming personal friends with many of the key Beat poets and writers, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
During the mid-1950s, Elliott relocated to England and became a hit in Europe, before returning to New York City's Greenwich Village folk scene in 1957 and recording his debut album, Woody Guthrie's Blues, that same year. By the early 1960s, Elliott had developed into a fine flat-picking guitarist and his twangy, unapologetically aggressive style and cutting sense of humor made him one of the shining lights of the rapidly developing folk scene, although he never confined himself to the folk genre. Much like Guthrie had mentored Elliott, Elliott mentored a new generation of folksingers, including a young Bob Dylan, who was another Guthrie disciple. Elliott not only encouraged Dylan but also helped shaped his repertoire, flat-picking, and vocal style at the time. Just as Elliott had once been dubbed "a poor man's Guthrie," Dylan, likewise, was identified as "a poor man's Elliott," before his own style began surfacing. Over the course of the next half century, Elliott would continue traveling, performing and recording, influencing countless musicians along the way.
Many assume his title of "Ramblin' Jack" was in reference to his relentless traveling, but in actuality it referred to his tendency toward stage banter. He would often ramble on through various topics and stories before arriving at a point during his song introductions. This made Ramblin' Jack Elliott's live performances far more engaging and considerably warmer than his studio recordings. Although on this performance Jack's ramblings are kept to a minimum, his performance is a delight and culminates in a collaboration with Bob Weir, whose set immediately followed.
The set kicks off with an immediately engaging rendition of Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues," a song Elliot is largely responsible for bringing to wider popularity. As he tells the audience, this number serves as his own wake-up call, and it's certainly a high-energy rendition with lyrics that have an obvious resonance with the Bay Area audience. With limited stage time, Elliot makes the most of it, first with a lovely reading of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice Its Alright" and following with Tim Hardin's beautiful "Reason To Believe," a number he had just recorded for his latest album at the time. All of these songs reflect Jack's innate ability to convey his personality and style into the songs he covers. In many cases, Elliot directly influenced these songwriters, with the Dylan and Hardin numbers being prime examples.
Ramblin Jack winds his set up by inviting Bob Weir to the stage for an acoustic duo performance of the Dead's "Friend Of The Devil." Despite vocal mistakes, Elliot and Weir's acoustic guitars delightfully mesh and the loose, unrehearsed nature of this spontaneous performance elicits a rousing ovation from the appreciative Berkeley audience.