Running with Friends of the devil

by Michael Hall (25 April 2020, Pulse! Magazine)

He wasn't the most successful middle-class kid to reinvent himself in Woody Guthrie's image. That would be Bob Dylan. But Ramblin' Jack Elliott, born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn in 1931, was one of the first, at the vanguard of the post-World War II slackers who hit the road with guitars, hats and wide-eyed visions of America. Just like Woody done. Elliott actually followed Guthrie around the country in the early '50s, imitating his voice and style and singing his songs. By the time the early-'60s folk boom hit, Elliott was known as the rambling cowboy from the west, the beat troubadour with a stunning repertoire of cowboy, protest and folk songs. He inspired and coached hundreds of younger singers and songwriters, including the scrawny kid from Minnesota.

Elliott never had anything approaching a hit, but for 45 years now he has kept the American songbook and accent alive. "Yeah, I feel like I'm a link," he says. "Nothing wrong with that. I'm proud to be fitting into history." Back then, of course, he wasn't a link; he was a singer. And now, after a lifetime of singing mostly by himself on his records, Elliott has made Friends of Mine (HighTone), an album full of duets and triplets with people he's known and played with for years, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Bob Weir, Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, and Arlo Guthrie, son of his mentor.

The idea for the album came from Elliott's producer, Roy Rogers, guitarist in Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings. "He gave me a lot of confidence when I didn't have it," says Elliott. "I haven't worked with other musicians a lot. I was amazed how nice it can sound without much rehearsal."

Elliott's guests all brought the songs they wanted to sing with him: Weir, "Friend of the Devil," which he had never sung (Jerry Garcia sang it in the Grateful Dead); Guy Clark, "Dark as a Dungeon"; Walker, "Hard Travelin'" (by Woody Guthrie).

When Townes Van Zandt died last January, Elliott called Clark's house in Nashville, where a wake was in progress. "Emmylou was there. I asked Nanci on the phone if she'd do something for this album. Nanci said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' I suggested we do a Townes song. Nanci said, 'How about "Rex's Blues"?' She started singing it. Emmylou grabbed a phone, and she was singing and I was singing harmony. Whole thing took about five seconds." The only singer on Friends of Mine he'd never sung with before was Tom Waits, an Elliott fan for years. Waits wrote the haunting "Louise" especially for Friends of Mine.

Elliott also wrote a song for the album, "Bleeker Street Blues," a scattered get-well to Bob Dylan after the legend's brush with death last year. Elliott isn't much of a songwriter, at least not the way Guthrie and Dylan are. His songs are the equivalent of beat-generation prose put to music: rambling images and stories loosely held together by some grail of Experience. Kind of like his conversations, which start over here (say, with Arlo Guthrie) and end over there (with Randy Newman). But perhaps more like his travels, which he still makes, touring the country he's seen and sung about hundreds of times.

"I don't play fancy guitar," he says. "I play at the right time." The rhythm of the road will do that to a kid.

Photograph by Jay Blakesberg Copyright © 1998 MTS, Inc., Pulse! Magazine
April 1998, Issue Number 169