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You're not likely to find Jack by looking for him. He's nowhere for long and everyone's got different stories along the lines of "When last I saw him..." If he happens to run across you, don't expect to have something to say. Don't expect to talk. Listen as a warm thick ale of a story, which will travel forward only circularly in a jigsaw logic, pours out as easily as breathing through Jack's whiskey voice.
If music is an art, then it is just as timeless so long as people relate to it. Emotionally. Art does not advance as art theories are systematically proven and applied. Prove my feelings. Prove me. Is Whitman irrelevant because America is numb? Have we in our great industrial catacomb made tears more efficient? If so, then yes Jack does play old fashioned music. And music is at best the fashion show it's become.
Jack showed his face in my town last June. From the stage, slowly, he felt us out. Some nights, he may control his very audience with threats against their person. "Please, no flash. It makes me psychotic." Other nights Jack will get lost piecing together some odd recollection, forming a sage out of random wanderings and happenstance influence. And then there's nights he just wants cooperation. "Hey. No flash photography. It makes me psychotic, you know what that means? Wicked weird, I forget all the words to the songs. That's when I start getting difficult. How'd you like to hear this one backwards for three hours?"
This night Jack was at his best, completely infuriating large numbers of gentlemen and ladies who expected a bottled, ready-to-please entertainer. Laser throttle special effects fried kids who'd never heard of subtlety didn't find the escape they sought either. Jack doesn't wear aluminum foil coated eyelids or hire half-naked background singers to divert visual attention. Jack's a rare breed in the performing arts a human being. There's no money in it and he commands only the life which your grandmother had in the corner of her eye. He'll sing about how difficult it is to shoot the dog you grew up with when he's terminally sick. He'll diminish any performer you ever see afterward, and it's all as natural and impressionable as giving birth. Sometimes it's as painful.
As Jack recalls, "I was born on a 45,000 acre ranch in the middle of Flatbush." Most of us refer to this particular ranch as Brooklyn, New York. He was raised there as Elliot Charles Adnopoz starting August 1, 1931 and remained contented enough until he saw his first rodeo Gene Autry and the blacklit bulls of Madison Square Garden. Elliot's young heart leaped to a world where big grins replaced his grammatically-inclined mother.
At fourteen, Elliot busted from home and hitched a rig to Washington, DC where he spied a poster advertising Colonel Jim Eskew's Rodeo. Sounded good. The rodeo cowboys there asked him his name. He muttered it sheepishly. "Adnopoz from Brooklyn" was an unlikely mantle for an aspiring cowboy. Seeing his embarrassment, one cowboy told the kid right there, "It ain't where you're from that counts, it's where you're going."2 He went with them.
They hired him on as a groom for two dollars a day. The money was spent on keeping him well fed malted milk and hamburgers. Evenings, he'd sleep under the horses' blankets in their leaking tents. Brahmer Rogers, a rodeo clown, would play five string banjo and recite poetry if all in attendance would toss a quarter. Seeded in Elliot's brain was quite another career option than the Yale-bound respectable his parents had been planning.
Every rodeo owner in the country then began receiving a "$500 Reward" poster advertising Elliot's likeness. Colonel Jim in DC thereby learned that Elliot (known to the cowboys as 'Pancho') was AWOL, and he made the Adnopozes aware of Jack's whereabouts. Dr. Adnopoz wrote the boy: "We're proud you're working for a reputable outfit and we're glad you're alive. If you want to come home and finish high school, we'd be glad to have you." An old clown named Lost John Carruthers advised, "If you git your high school diploma, you kin do anything you want. But if you don't you'll be a cowboy the rest of your days, whether you like it or not."4
Finishing school didn't deromanticize the cowboy image any more than it beautified New York. Two derelict collegiate attempts were interspersed by wandering sidearmed with a six string around New York's Village under various titles and invented origins. Eric Von Schmidt heard tell "of a curly-headed Greek called Xerxes who played one hell of a guitar."5
This unfocused energy distilled when Jack heard the Oscar Brand radio program play a number by Woody Guthrie. Woody was the preeminent songwriter, yoking his uncontrollable spurts of imagery with a human feel. Woody's autobiographical accounts of the road sold well and were acclaimed, but his songs would reach to the very fiber of America. Everyone but the rich and the crooked politicians who served them could hear that Woody was singing their words and their song. An old saying goes, "If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song." Woody's anti-capitalist anthem "This Land is Your Land" got a few potent verses lopped off so's they could sing it in school.
Now Jack wasn't searching for a workingman's reincarnation of Walt Whitman, but he knew damn well when he heard an authentic singer one who didn't apologize if his throat was worn or his guitar attacked rather than soothed. In February of 1951, a doctor had mistaken some abdominal pains Woody was having for a minor stomach virus. (He'd actually ruptured his appendix.) Whilst lazing about recovering and entertaining visitors, a kid of about twenty strode in under a cowboy hat with guitar in hand.
Jack's pairing with Woody was that of Don Quixote with Sancho Panza. Jack idolized Woody while realizing that he could not be him:
"I used to look over his shoulder as he'd sit there at the typewriter and knock off these songs just as quick as you could blink. And each time they'd be perfect and needed no correcting. So after watching that I realized there was no way I was gonna top that. And I decided it would be better if I just did what I did best and find the songs and interpret them the way they suited me." recalls Jack.8
Jack and Woody would wander the country off and on over the next five
years, fairly unburdened by their standard luggage only razors and
guitars. Jack learned to travel and through the years developed an impressive
roster of friendships scattered everywhere he went. Greenwich Village
in 1953 had him involved with
Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and
Helen Parker. Kerouac was eager to read Jack his own account of the traveling
lifestyle, On the Road. It took them three days and a lot of wine.
Kerouac and Ginsberg both noted Jack's aptitude for stealing their girls
(as detailed elsewhere in site interviews).
By Buick, Woody and Jack braved the trail to California in 1954. Their
destination was Topanga Canyon, a hideout for the greatest outlaw desperadoes
of the 1950's left wing artists and/or intellectuals waiting out
the McCarthyist storm.
"Woody had dropped me off at Will Geer's place in Topanga Canyon where I met Derroll Adams, who was the closest thing to a muleskinner I had ever met at that time. Derroll had been a cowboy and a logger in Oregon and taught himself singing with a five string banjo. They didn't have any five string teachers in Oregon nobody knew how to play a five string. All they knew how to do was run a skitter, and he was a choker setter and a windfall bucker. But Derroll had something extra. He had a Chinese kinda beard, and he had sorta Japanese calligraphy written on his banjo. It was some kind of a hip statement that Jack Kerouac wished he'd have wrote. Derroll played the five string banjo and lived in a cave. When I first met him, I'd heard about him so much that I didn't need an introduction. I just walked right up to him and said, 'You're Derroll Adams,' and he said, 'Yup,' and I knew we were going to be friends for life, or pretty near."
While Jack was still singing through the night at Will's, Woody crept up the cliff to sleep on his land. By morning, Woody had crept off and away up north. Jack awoke and with Derroll headed south. He swapped songs, drinks, and lies with everyone he came across, from A.P. and Maybelle Carter to Jesse Fuller and James Dean.
Jack remembers, "I played to [James Dean] twice. That was 1955. His ex-girlfriend who became my wife, my first wife introduced us. She later became the first traveling road manager for the Rolling Stones, a little-known group in Europe at the time.
"But I played to Dean in the parking lot of Googie's, a nice little restaurant, kind of a hamburger joint. It was next to Schwab's Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard, at the corner of Crescent Heights Boulevard. I know it was Crescent Heights because we were chased down the boulevard by a sheriff's car on night. I wasn't driving; a buddy of mine was. He was trying to get me to a gig on time. Now that was the Ash Grove. I was supposed to play at 11 o'clock, but I called the club at 12:30 from the police station." 11
Swapping admiration with celebrities doesn't provide for grub, however. A typical job hired Jack to wobble on wooden crutches up the aisle of a church "He would wobble up the aisle," recalled Derroll, "and be saved."12 Other promising careers included Jack's stint as Judge Roy Bean who would've married you for a dollar.
Jack's actress wife June, no longer seeing Dean, had been planning to see Europe. June said her husband had better go with her. Although Jack wasn't really ready to leave the United States right at that exact time, he had been setting his mind to the task of world travel since even before the cowboy addiction. Jack recollects, "My next door neighbor in Brooklyn was an old whaler out of New Bedford, Mass., and then a New York Harbor pilot. He trained me to be a merchant marine and made me memorize the names of all the standing and running rigging on a clipper ship, the 32 compass points and knots and splicing."13
The 1954 British popular music was swarming with
skiffle: kids squealing through quirky jazzed-up washboard renditions
of American folk compositions. (Lonnie Donegan's cover of Lead Belly's
"Rock Island Line" backed with Woody's "Grand Coulee Dam" ignited the
craze. It was selling three million copies, a killing figure in those
days, and the records were all bought by teenagers.)
Back in the mid-fifties, June was relocating Jack to England, and neither had any reason to guess that American rural music had become top-forty in foreign territory. Unbeknownst to the fashionability of his own self, Jack Elliott arrived in an England starving for an authentic singer of songs they'd only heard in British. "Jack was the biggest influence on guitar in this country," notes Alex Campbell.14 The skiffled youth had been simply brushing the strings, but were entranced by Jack's flat picking. Jack arrived with a songbook of untold stories ready to be passed on. Woody's "Massacre" songs were followed with vivid imaginations. Ewan MacColl (author of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Dirty Old Town, and many many more) confessed, "He is one of the few to bring tears to my eyes."15 Jack pounded out songs like "San Francisco Bay Blues" every night until they became standards throughout the country. Years later other American singers would cross the Atlantic to find that they were left still to contend with Jack's shadow. Arlo Guthrie relates, "I'd written enough songs for 15 minutes in a set, and then I did my dad's songs for thirty. All the rest were songs that Jack had recorded that had nothing to do with Dad. Everywhere I went, people would say 'Oh, that's great you know Jack Elliott songs.'"16
This in-demand wearied cowboy finally decided to return to America. Back in his home country, he was soundly ignored.
Nowadays we've watched America ignore its indigenous culture a thousand
times over, accepting stock reinterpretations of it while its source lay
untouched. American blues was spread thick through the country of Britain,
while American youth didn't consider listening to it ... until it was
covered by white British boys The Rolling Stones, The YardBirds, Led Zeppelin,
CREAM, and dozens more. Decades after the blues had injected sex into
rock and roll, another form of social protest sprang to the streets. The
youth of the city spat out what was called punk, and America ignored it
until it temporarily went away. When it hit Britain, you couldn't survive
as a band playing anything else. Like Jack Elliott, T.S. Eliot had steeped
himself in the traditional to create work of lasting contemporary impact.
When T.S. Eliot trucked off to England, however, he never did return.
It was during this barrage that Jack wore out the Guthrie mold he himself had fashioned. Stu Jamieson recalled, "Jack was aware that he'd didn't quite sound like Woody and was concerned about continuing to try, but probably not too displeased to discover a difference. He was upset only by the fact that others knew his goal and condemned him for it. Once in England, he was isolated from odious comparisons and could be less introspective."17
Eric Von Schmidt recognized an evolution in Jack back in 1955. "'The word had gone around for some time that he had actually become Woody.' ...But when Eric heard Jack sing Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'Black Snake Moan,' 'it was magnificent, perfect, and Jack Elliott...Jesse Fuller had something to do with it, and God knows what all else, but the Guthrie imitator was dead and Jack was born."18
Of his developing talent for spoken word, Sam Shepard proffered, "He's not selfish in that way of nailing your attention down with insane raps. His pleasure is wandering casually in the imagination and just bringing someone else along for the ride."
Tom Russell added, "I used to see Ramblin' Jack in the early 1960's at the Ash Grove in L.A. He'd roll into the lot in a big Land Rover. Sometimes he'd come out on stage and never sing a song. He'd rap for forty minutes. He must have been the first cowboy-folk rap artist. He plays that Martin D-28 with a beat-jazz attitude. A true American original." 19
Meanwhile back at the ranch, 1960's America was warming up to what it called the "folk boom." Gimmicks aside, this "folk music" tended to shoo off the battered disgruntled miner who would've confronted the distanced admiration of academics. With a backward appreciation of the people from which the music sprang, the buffed harmonic smiles of such as the Kingston Trio were what became popular more than anything. Jack shrugged as he watched clean-cut kids smooth those rough songs for a Middle American audience. They could call it what they wanted, he went the unmarketable route true to oneself. As they say, "Sea shanties should not be sung well."
Elliott again returned to New York City, with a strong jaw and uncanny likeness to Gene Kelly. This time he couldn't be ignored, and both Newsweek and the New York Times' Robert Shelton ran his praises "one of the few authentic voices in American folk music."20
The American scene had changed markedly. With the
urban popularization of folk songs came a deification of Woody Guthrie.
Jack already knew the repertoire, and he'd already been doing the hard
traveling lifestyle that Woody romanticized.
"The day I returned, I went to visit him in the hospital in New Jersey and there I met Bob Dylan." says Jack.21 Dylan had adopted Woody as his hero and songwriting model back home in Minnesota. He'd dropped his Minnesota accent and a smoother singing style in order to adopt the rasp speak-talking of the Oklahoma dust bowl survivor. Dylan's old girlfriend remembered, "When he'd had too much to drink you'd have to call him Woody to get a response."22
Woody, however, was in no shape to show the ropes to any more devotees. The kid Jack just happened upon at the hospital soon became Jack's eager apprentice. Dylan'd learned what he could of Woody's style from records, but the actual performance was gotten through Jack.
Jack remembered, "There were a lot of people who tried to make me angry
about that. 'He's stealing the wind out of your sails,' they'd tell me,
but I still had plenty of wind left.
Most people still thought Jack of authentic American cowhand origins. He sure played the part. Eventually Dylan learned that Jack's real background mirrored his own, which Bob had been concealing: middle-class Jewish kids Elliot Adnopoz and Robert Zimmerman escaped academia to follow the image of Woody Guthrie. "It ain't where you're from that counts, it's where you're going."25
Dave Van Ronk recalls the following insightful cry amidst Jack's self-evolution: "I was at Gerde's for Jack Elliott's New York debut. He had just put out an album on Vanguard for which he wrote the notes. In the notes, he admitted his real name was Elliot Adnopoz and that he was from Brooklyn. Consequently, this brought him back into favor with his mother and father.
"They were very prominent people in Brooklyn. His father was chief of surgeons in a hospital, and the family had been in medicine for several generations and that Jack had turned into such a bum and, furthermore, changed his name, was a great source of grief.
"So when he wrote this thing and more or less acknowledged his background, a great reconciliation was struck, and Dr. and Mrs. Adnopoz came down to see the kid.
"I was sitting at the table with the artist Harry Jackson, Bobby Dylan, and Dr. and Mrs. Adnopoz. Jack was on stage having some trouble tuning his guitar and the audience was utterly hushed, a very rare occurrence in that room. Mrs. Adnopoz, sitting about two chairs from me, was just staring at him, raptly, and she lets out with a stage whisper, 'Look at those fingers such a surgeon he could have been!'" 26
Dylan's progress as a performer would be suddenly shocked into the limelight from out beneath Jack. Ex-girlfriend Suzan Rotolo states unabashedly, "Robert Shelton's review, without a doubt, made Dylan's career, because that brought the establishment." 27
An eyewitness account to Dylan's discovery recalls the incident in light of humorous coincidence, notable as such happenstance belies the source of humor and insight in Jack's own life:
"One night at Gerde's, Dave Van Ronk, Robert Shelton, and a number of other musician friends and I were sitting around the bar. I think it might have been a hoot night. Shelton asked David who he thought was the spokesperson for the new generation. David, who by this time was tired of having Bobby sleeping on his couch and mooching off everyone, slyly looked up in that way that he has, and lifted an inebriated finger at a sloppy little kid on stage and said, 'Him!' Everyone laughed because it was Bobby Dylan, who none of us took seriously. Everyone thought that David's joke was quite funny, except Shelton, who took it seriously and made him a star." 28
The events of that liquored evening are contested, perhaps exaggerated, tumbling toward the only truly accurate depiction in reply by Dave himself who chuckles, "Maybe it did happen. We were probably all drunk." 29
Pete Seeger applauded this process in Jack, though it goes for either of them: "When we see Jack on the stage now he is Jack and no longer an imitation of Woody. He's proven that it's possible to learn an idiom and a style one was not born to, but came to love later in life, and he's proven also that you can emerge from this period of imitation into being genuinely creative on you own; something that needs proving in this modern world when there's so much confusion among young people as to the value of imitating between the value of just being yourself."31
For the first half of the sixties, Jack spat out more LP's than years passed. His tenor rang out at almost every major festival. Jack laid out the foundation of America before budding songwriters who would always return to their worn Jack Elliott LP's for inspiration. Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Elton John honored Jack Elliott for his British servitude, now Americans including Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead and The Band would hear in him their America.
Any defeats in these years were less than ignominious. Gentle, elfen, seventy-year-old Mississippi John Hurt beat Jack at arm wresting. Hurt then beat the hefty Dave Van Ronk and former college football star Sam Hood. Hurt went on to beat them all a second time.
The train of Ramblin' Jack's recording career came to a magnificent impact in 1967 which both brought attention and derailed the train. He hired onto a big label, two record deal with Warner Brothers, who were determined to make him into a mainstream star rather than the icon of the underground. Jack was recorded in slam bam electric rockabilly bands, overdubbed with Indian tabla, and his rambling spoken tales were tape spliced into submission. Somewhere in the midst of this confusion Jack's first composition broke through.
"912 Greens" was as original and random as Jack had grown to become through the enormity of coincidence which he'd shaped into his life. Casting aside songwriting conventions, Jack talked his way through a tale which had no true end or logic. It wound out while wondering childlike at a coherently disarrayed and deadpan world, and what little we understand of what it could all add up to. It rewrote more than a few opinions as to what songwriting consists of and dropped a lot of jaws.
What Henry Miller said on the state of theatre certainly applies to the state of songwriting: "The best of our theater is standing tiptoe, striving to see over the shoulders of father and mother. The worst is exploiting and wallowing in the self-pity of adolescence and obsessive keyhole sexuality. The way out, as the poet has said, is always through."32
On Jack's second Warner LP late-night drunken tomfoolery, console board sound effects and song fragments were increasingly included alongside the usual legendary fare. Jack was never consulted as to his opinion on any of this. Disgusted with the control he'd lost over what had become Jack the product, he ceased contact with the recording industry. This sore only festered as Jack to this day receives no money for all the Warner sides he still finds himself autographing for fans.
Elliott worked the clubs, appeared in a film short titled "Ramblin," and performed on television, including the popular Johnny Cash Show. He played and sang in the original WBAI radio version of what must've been the first, if not the only, 18 minute hit single: Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant." Jack also hired on a new road manager named Caesar, part Husky and part Australian Shepard. "He was a good road manager, but I never should've taught him how to drive." reflected Jack.
By 1975 space music had flown away. People's drugged states fell off and their feet were found to be in the same dirt they were in before the drugs disguised it. A reaction was brewing against the supposed high-minded progressive genre which tended to ignore the human condition in favor of self-indulgent whimsy stamped "art." A return from classical arrangements to the simple drive of folk chord progressions ensued.
Patti Smith described its beginnings: "People just started turning up in the Village. It happened very fast. Jack Elliott was around everybody was around. Then one night, Bob [Dylan] started going up on stage, jamming with these people."33 Dylan, who had just come off the largest tour in music history, was hungry for the intimacy of smaller venues. He wanted to create lyrically and musically, rather than prop up any more of his greatest hits. Jack hadn't seen Dylan in years when Bob ambled up and asked if Jack would again join him, to "play for the people." Jack immediately yelped, "Let's go!"34
"It's gonna be a new living room every night. This is the first existential tour...it's a movie...a closed set...it's rock 'n' roll heaven and it's historical...It's been Ramblin' Jack's dream for a long time...he's the one who taught us all, and the dream's coming true..." proclaimed Bobby Neuwirth.35
Dylan led this ramshackle assemblage of colleagues dubbed "The Rolling Thunder Review." Jack alternated with or played alongside Bob Neuwirth, Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Lightfoot, T-Bone Burnett, Arlo Guthrie, and Robbie Robertson. The performers themselves rarely knew where the tour bus would stop next, and their small venue shows would be announced to the fans without more than a day's warning. The Rolling Thunder Review became Dylan's second most praised tour, and Jack for the first time conceded to traveling first class. He even let them tune his guitar for him.
When Rolling Thunder roared into Plymouth, Jack mounted the great mizzenmast on the Mayflower replica, a ship he'd helped build. Hailing down to the poets agape but still grounded, he shouted "Ahoy!" From the soil Allen Ginsberg realized, "We have, once again, embarked on a voyage to reclaim America."36
Following the tour Bob shot out an acclaimed album he called "Desire," which broadsided his most aggressive new material in a decade as well as numbers such as "One More Cup of Coffee," which Rolling Stone noted "is apparently based on a story Ramblin' Jack Elliott used to tell." "Hard Rain," a wearied release of the often raucous material from the tour, would be described by Mick Ronson as vital to pre-punk.
The popular music medium had lost its ability to speak urgently, directly. The folk revival (aka urban folk scare) brought back the voices of a recorded rural boom then thirty years old. American punks sought the simple, fun rhythms from the slightly less ancient 50s rock boom.
Patti Smith remembered her mother thinking the swing bands would live
forever. Smith saw rock dying amid camp,
supergroups, and stadium shows -- controlled from behind a desk with a tie. Music makes millionaires. Millionaires don't sing
tunes about injustice. Poor, confused punk kids forged visions. Some were
bubble gum. Some were art. None made it out of New York without compromise.
"He's self destructive. If you want to compare him to anybody, try T.E. Lawrence."37
"Acting out, on a 24-hour-a day basis, the role of Last American Cowboy isn't easy: all that two-fisted drinking and the endless days on the road and the nights sleeping in the back of pick-up trucks or on borrowed floors."38
"Well, it isn't always easy being known as an inspiration to the rich and famous when you're neither yourself. 'Jack went though a time when people expected such simplistic things of him, ' says Arlo Guthrie, 'that for a while he almost believed that's who he should be.'"39
"I have been a big failure at times and I will be again if I don't keep my act together." groaned Jack. "I saw Phil [Ochs] drinking. I saw him on stage one night so drunk that everyone felt embarrassed and sorry for him and shocked with his behavior. I know that I too probably shocked with my own behavior when I was drunk, and probably did not know what happened afterwards. I never even thought I was an alcoholic. I drank to get loosened up. It was a very dangerous threat to my career. I had to deal with it as the enemy." 40
Two hours late, he'd stagger in unshaven with a bottle in his hand and the audience could take what they got, abandoned to alcohol, cocaine, and the road. Lifelong fans would finally meet Jack and walk away supporting the old axiom that you should never meet your heroes. A youngster who'd just started out to be a picker got up the nerve to ask the legendary Jack Elliott for advice and heard, "Be a truck driver, get a job on a ranch. I don't know. I don't know how you do it. I just do it by habit. You dig, like when this thing is over, you're gonna look for me, but you won't find me. I'm gonna be gone. I'm gonna be in my truck driving over the hill to some quiet place where I can lay my head down."41
Jack's since been following a better set of his own advice: "Success
means having a new hat for Christmas." Self destruction gave way to self
enlightenment, and Jack Elliott reignited his reinvention mechanism. He
made a stab at becoming a born-again Christian, prophetically reasoning:
"I didn't want to die a neurotic wreck."42
Outside the American music monotony, motley musicians were in Germany ganging up to produce a sampler called Folk Friends. After those sessions, Jack stuck around to record a full album Kerouac's Last Dream his first after 13 years on the road and sea.
His guitar playing was masterful, layered with a subtle dynamic. It roamed and punctuated behind his relaxed voice, which amplified its own quirky uniqueness. Among soulful reworkings of the boasts of many a songwriter lay the first available recording of Jack singing "Cup of Coffee." Jack had written the number in the backseat of Johnny Cash's car decades ago. It reached some success through Cash's resonant baritone on a 1966 Cash album entitled "Everybody Loves a Nut." As the first "truckin' song" recorded in Nashville it conveyed Jack's understanding of the difficult and absurd lifestyle truckers live. Jack's said that after he wrote that song about truckers, they began to write a lot of good ones.
"No studio recording, though, can capture the impact of Elliott performing on a good night. He improvises on melodies and twists them around, singing free of commonplace phrase structure and of his own guitar rhythms. Taking great, crazy risks and usually succeeding, he generates a tremendous excitement of which his recordings offer a small glimpse."43
Jack laughed, "I don't plan it. I just get my fingers rollin' on the
guitar, and the strings are rollin'. It usually happens when I'm not paying
attention to it. Just when I think I'm gettin' lost.
This personal interaction with music was part of daily life for everyone, up until it could be played without musicians. Very recently in the evolution of human society, we stopped creating. We handed our art over to other people, called them professionals. You could make a bigger buck selling recorded music.
Music moved. It had been part of the metaphoric and spiritual life of a community. It had been informative. It had been other things. For an increasingly pervasive Western World, music is solely entertainment. Entertainment is an industry. Music is now used to escape life. Others use movies or drugs. Music is an other — it is not created by those who use it. Art is no longer for everyone.
Alan Lomax forcasted, "When the whole world is bored with automated, mass-distributed video music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture."
Bands are so concerned with being new, being different. The most different thing they could do would be to play good songs. I want in on the next big thing as much as I want to be the first one on my block to represent the least common denominator.
Instead of using a wallet, Stephen Foster carried his cash as gold nuggets hidden in his mouth. Foster was America's most popular songwriter 150 years ago — worth noting. You'll hear things in Rolling Stone like, "Oh, the Beatles' songs will still be around in a hundred years." Taking note of how quickly things are forgotten nowadays needs to be part and parcel of estimating whether anything is going to last.
In 1985 the last and most resilient vestiges of the Old West banded together
in the dead of winter to cement their heritage the first Cowboy
Poetry Gathering. Working cowhands from all over the West now hit the
trail to Elko annually, where Jack and others tell the stories and songs
which root their community.
"And I thought... studio album. Oh! Studio album! And I said, let me think, and I thought back and it took me a while to figure it. It was 26, 27 years ago.
"He still kept on and said, 'You might die before you make another studio album,' giving it a great sense of importance.
"'Yep,' I said, 'might die.' And then we left it like that until he waved a big pile of money in my face.
I thought, 'Gee, money. I remember money.' "46
There was some sorta studio up in the woods of Minnesota. The Mississippi River was in flood spreading odd types of airborne viruses. A few of them spent nine months drilling Jack with a sinus infection and headaches. Jack recalled, "Well I tried everything, finally went to a holistic doctor, and he gave me some ground-up tree bark or something and cured me just like that. Changed my voice though, I'm a lot rougher than I used to be."47
In three consecutive northern nights, Jack ran through three four hour sessions, then headed west whilst the record was cut and mixed. Nothing had been prepared beforehand and no one song was much attempted repeatedly. Not a recipe for success, you'd imagine. Maybe, but it got Jack Elliott a Grammy award.
Jack rode on into town to accept the Grammy in a tuxedo which had been custom made for Bing Crosby. He'd only worn a tuxedo once before long ago Dylan had called him up and invited him down to the screening of that five hour Rolling Thunder tour movie, Renaldo and Clara, adding that Jack should wear a tuxedo. As it turned out, everyone else was dressed normally and Dylan had just laughed at him for being so foolish.
The Bay Area Music Awards of San Francisco Bay followed up the Grammies with more Jack Elliott awarding, and he continued accepting, perhaps wondering what exactly he'd suddenly done. At some point during the hoopla, the town he was living in realized they had a celebrity in their midst and threw him another party. "That was probably the first time I'd met the whole town," Jack joked. "All 49 of them were there."50
"Been there three years longer than I've lived any one place in my life" figured Jack. Holly Heinzmann, who works behind the counter of the town store said, "We started paying attention to him once he got the Grammy. Before that, we didn't pay any attention at all."51
When things had finally stopped spinning, Jack noticed annoying side effects to the otherwise positive recognition experience: "I used to do only 60 concerts a year. That may double 'cause of that damn Grammy."52 Touring has inversely affected Jack's love of the road, but audiences and peers increasingly herald witness to his gravity.
Improvisatory stuntmanship surrounded by a well of tradition, Jack grapples amazingly without the saddle of familiarity. Jack's peers and admirers began to peel from the surrounding woodwork and sang alongside him on his following Grammy nominated releases. After having been ignored for decades, he again began a heavy touring and interviewing agenda, questioned regarding anything from the state of the country to his intentions as a singer:
"I'm trying to tell the story the way the story hits me without blowing you away. It's not an opera."53
Vaquero songwriter and sometime touring partner of Jack's, Mike Beck, sat down on the edge of the stage after a show in Montana to watch the fans line up for autographs. Chelsea Clinton trotted along and told him he was "simply enchanting." Mike chuckled and drawled, "You know, a good friend of mine was just at your folks' place for dinner the other night."
He wasn't kidding. One longtime fan of Jack's had printed out an earlier copy of this here biography, wrapped it with a letter, and posted it to an arts chairman in DC. No one was more surprised than Jack when he was invited to receive the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States of America.
After the ceremonial meal Clinton began walking along the wall to the back of the hall where he'd be entertaining. The guests stood up to let him pass and Jack realized this was his once chance to have a private talk with Bill out of earshot of the G-Men. When Clinton's shoulder brushed past, Jack leaned in and muttered, " I heard a rumor that Bob Dylan is in town. I thought we could dress you up in a little disguise and sneak over there and see him." Clinton beamed, "Oh, that'd be wonderful!" before he remembered his role and escaped away up the aisle.
The road is an unpredictable terrain and ornery, and Jack's never done
anything the same way twice. Some still bother to try and guess where
Jack's headed. "A lot of people expect that someday he'll grow up and
be normal, but he's never been normal. He's always been interesting, though."54
For years people looked at just Jack's wily intelligence or just his musical talent and expected him to become a major player. That's not his nature. A jester dances about the scene, making wise cracks we only later realize are brimming with insight. A jester points the leaders assembled about him in various directions then sits back idly in the corner when doom or victory claim the king. Ever innocent and unsuspected, the jester is the kingpin which keeps a kingdom from rotating on swords. The jester is also the wizard who realizes not to take himself seriously, who wields not fear, but assembles all the players without lifting a finger. The problem with a Jack Elliott biography is that of making a lead character out of the jester.
Jack partially explained how he's shaped by the influences inside him: "I have always created my own sources, but I still sing Woody's songs. While a lot of people don't think I'm imitating Woody, I still feel I am in a way, you know, like he's looking over my shoulder."56 Jack's the kid with an angel on his shoulder or a wise old rodeo clown or maybe we don't realize yet that he stands before us "as the representative of the man that made the country what it is today the working man." He's what you'd call the real thing, and he won't be watered down for anybody.
"I was just getting ready to go on a national tour of 'Woody Guthrie's American Song' by Peter Glazer. Gene Parsons, some unidentified (to me) blonde woman and Jack are walking down by the coast and we run into each other. Gene says, 'Jack, this is Lawrence Bullock. He's gonna play Woody Guthrie in a play.' Jack kinda sizes me up and down, grins and says, 'You kinda look like Woody...' then turns to the blonde and says, '...and you kinda look like Woody, too...'"57