Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys

(April 1998, Microsoft Corporation )

This April's "Monsters of Folk" Tour may have tongue in cheek when it comes to the marquee, but the package does underscore the enduring appeal of traditional and contemporary folk music. Sharing the bill are four singers, songwriters and guitarists who between them provide added links to rock, country and blues — former Blasters front man Dave Alvin, who excels at rootsy, blue-collar vignettes of modern American life; bluesy baritone journeyman Chris Smither; cowboy chronicler Tom Russell; and a true folk godfather, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

Of these it's Elliott who is least known to young audiences, yet he brings the longest rap sheet and the most colorful chain of connections to the folk tradition. Despite over four decades of performing, this archetypal troubadour has lived and worked outside the pop limelight thanks to his penchant for singing other people's songs, as well as to the checkered commercial reception for his dozens of albums. But Elliott, now in his 60s, may yet find a new, wider audience, thanks to his 1996 Grammy for best traditional folk artist, and to a newly released album teaming him with such friends and admirers as Nanci Griffith, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Tom Waits and Bob Weir. Those rock and folk luminaries see Elliott as an embodiment of folk music, which poses a common thread to their own careers.

Modern parlance might prefer the singer-songwriter hyphenate, in deference to the confessional model created by such late-'60s and early-'70s bards as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. But if any figure changed the ground rules and potential for the folksinger, it was Bob Dylan, who, in turn, drew much of his artistic shape from two predecessors, one truly legendary, the other largely neglected in recent years. Oklahoman singer, songwriter, guitar player and social activist Woody Guthrie has rightly been lionized as a folk-music avatar, whose songs reflected the people and places of his mid-20th-century travels across America. Yet, by Dylan's own recollection, Elliott was a vital link to Guthrie himself, as well as to the life of the itinerant musician.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is as much yarn spinner as singer, and his influence on Dylan and other '50s urban folk musicians has as much to do with his romantic self-reinvention as with his music. Born Elliott Adnopoz in 1931, he was a Brooklyn native and son of a successful doctor, but a childhood trip to a traveling rodeo appearing at Madison Square Garden provided the seed for his eventual persona as Ramblin' Jack Elliott — he ran away from home as a teenager, joining a rodeo as a groom and learning banjo from a rodeo clown and a few guitar chords from a cowboy, before returning home. Hearing Guthrie's music in the early '50s, he sought out Guthrie himself, insinuating himself into his household and spending the next few years traveling around the country with him, an odyssey that ended when Guthrie was hospitalized for Huntington's Chorea in 1954.

Elliott himself returned to the road, playing Guthrie's songs as the centerpiece of his repertoire, and spent the second half of the decade traveling around Europe. By the time he returned to the U.S. in 1961, commercial folk music was booming, and Elliott was greeted as an authentic pioneer. Visiting Guthrie in the hospital, he met another, younger Guthrie fan newly arrived in New York, a Minnesota-bred minstrel who'd christened himself Bob Dylan. The pair became frequent stage partners and good friends, and Elliott served as a mentor.

Elliott would move to California in the mid-'60s, but regardless of his putative home address, he continued traveling throughout the succeeding decades. Music Central caught up with the laconic, good-natured Elliott at his home in Marin County for a leisurely chat that helped explain his self-imposed nickname.

On the "Monsters of Folk" Tour:

They didn't cut me in on any information for about two months, and I knew nothing about where we were going, and who was paying for the airfares, and a lot of other pertinent information that I began to get worried about. And when I finally found out the horrible truth of this "Monster" tour, I was in shock, and it was too late to refuse to go. It really is a monster tour as far as I'm concerned — we've only got two days off, and they're both together, which is great because we're going to need a great, big, long day off to do laundry and rest up in the middle of the tour ... so I'm lookin' at it with dread. It's like they got us mapped like we're super-astronauts and we got lots of vitamins aboard. ...

I heard that they would like us all to be onstage together, like they do in folk festivals sometimes. We'll all be sitting around on chairs, and do it kind of round-robin. Like Dave will do one, I'll do one, Tom'll do one. Which might be a fun way to do it, actually, and it may end up that we'll all get to know each other better that way.

On the rigors of road life, and why he's a certified pilot who hates commercial flights:

I don't mind bein' the pilot, but I don't like not bein' the pilot. I don't like bein' in the back of the airplane, where the air is bad. You get all these other passengers talking to each other in the seat behind you, and you can hear them better than they can hear each other. Or a baby, even in front, and that baby's screaming — there's a horror. Or the guitar-smuggling. Boy, I could write a book on how to smuggle a guitar onto an airplane, but it doesn't always work, because they might have some new employee who just memorized all the rulebooks, and he's gonna take your guitar away, and he's gonna break it. I have a very valuable but delicate old Martin guitar, which I'm not gonna bring on the tour with me. Fact is, I'm looking for a fiberglass or ferro-cement guitar.

On being a postwar Brooklyn cowboy:

Back in those days, I could walk freely among the people on the street in Harlem, because I had a guitar and a cowboy hat. And the black folks, if they didn't like white people, I hardly knew about it, because cowboys were exempt. They were friendly to cowboys. They appreciated my cowboy hat. They would just make friendly remarks, like "Hey, cowboy" or "Gene Autry" or something like that. Whereas down in the white part of town, Manhattan and Brooklyn, I'd get a lot of nasty remarks about my cowboy hat, derogatory remarks about Texas. Well, I thought a lot of those people had never been to Texas — probably a lot of them had never been to New Jersey — and I'd been all over the place by the time I was 17 and I resented their hostility. It didn't make me like New York any better.

A cowboy's education — at prep school:

When I was feeling kind of oppressed by the city ways at Erasmus Hall High School, my dad sent me to a boarding school in Connecticut, where I was surrounded by other students who were misfits in their own family life and their own upbringing, mostly by well-to-do parents. I flunked out, only lasted one semester, didn't do much schoolwork, but it was in the country and I met a couple of other fellow students who kind of helped to steer my mind toward things like jazz music, country life, hobo travel and cowboy life. One was Ben Churchill, who looked like a real old man to me — he was 19, he had a face like a Saint Bernard dog, and he smoked a pipe and played the guitar a little bit. ... He had been raised in Massachusetts but ran away from home at an early age, and went west on a freight train and got a job riding the range in Montana, and experienced a little bit of that cowboy life. Then he went in the Navy, and he was on an aircraft carrier, in what must have been part of World War II. I think he lied about his age and joined when he was 16 or 17, and he was only in for about a year.

Paternity and the "suits" during the folk boom:

I went to Columbia [Records] myself way back, just after Bob [Dylan] signed with them, and personally met [legendary A&R man and Dylan discoverer] John Hammond, whom Bob had written me a letter of introduction to, which was done tongue-in-cheek, with a sense of humor. I presented the letter to John Hammond, and he read the letter and broke into a big laugh when he realized that Bob was just bein' cute. And it said, "This is to introduce Jack Elliott, my long-lost father, who abandoned me at the age of 12." Something like that. And he said, "Well, Jack, I appreciate that you'd like to be with our company, and frankly I like your music, but we just signed Bobby, we've just spent a whole lot of money on Bobby, and the last thing we want to do now is sign somebody else similar to Bobby." He was very charming, very engaging.

Only a hobo: A fateful walk-on leads to his new "Friends of Mine" album:

I met Roy Rogers, the producer of the record, who's a fine guitar player, and very knowledgeable musician and producer. ... Roy and I met when we were both acting as hoboes in a movie, in a boxcar playing guitars, for a movie about the Barrow gang. And he suggested that we get together and make a record. I thought I'd made plenty of records, and I didn't have much interest in trying to make any more records, but Roy was so gung-ho about the idea that I was kind of charmed by his enthusiasm and thought, "Why not? This might be a good one that might sell." I'd never had a hit record, or anything near a money-making record, in 40 records.

The genesis of the new album's reminiscence of Dylan, "Bleeker Street Blues," a rare Elliott original:

I wrote that just right off the cuff, with hardly a single rewriting of a line or a correction or anything. It's exactly how it came off the page right after I heard the news that Bob was sick, that he'd breathed some petrified batshit dust in the air, and got some kind of deep lung ailment that was life-threatening. And I thought, "God, this is bad." And I finally let myself sit right down and write something immediately, when the news hit me, which I've never done before.

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this one dug up outta