Ramblin' Jack still rustles up gems

by Rick Mitchell (8 April 2020, Houston Chronicle)

As song-swaps go, the "Monsters of Folk" tour arriving Saturday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck promises to be one to remember. Sponsored by Hightone Records, the tour unites three of the finest singer-songwriters of the '90s: Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and Chris Smither.

But the artist onstage the others will defer to has, by his own count, written only three songs in the last 30 years.

"I haven't done that much working on my music," said Ramblin' Jack Elliott by phone from his home north of San Francisco. "Usually, I just do other peoples' material, though I try to do it as if it was my own."

Elliott is one of the venerated elders of American folk music. He is the living link between the New Deal era of politicized folk singers that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the folk-rock generation that began with Bob Dylan's emergence into the pop world.

Yet, Elliott doesn't particularly consider himself a "folk singer," or profess to understand what that term might stand for.

"I'm just a musician," he said. "I make most of my living playing in bars. I've been doing that for 45 years. I sing old cowboy songs, old blues, Woody Guthrie songs ...

"It's more like old-time folk music than any pop music, but I'm not into putting music into categories."

Elliott's latest album, Friends of Mine, features unforgettable songs by such notables as Gene Autry, Joe Ely, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Tim Hardin, Jerry Garcia, Merle Travis, Dylan and Guthrie.

Sure enough, Elliott sings them all as if he wrote them, with help from an all-star collection of friends including Waits, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bob Weir, Peter Rowan, Rosalie Sorrels and Guy Clark.

A native New Yorker, Elliott caught the cowboy bug at the age of 9 when he attended his first rodeo at Madison Square Garden. At 15, he ran away from home and went on the road with Col. Jim Eskew's Rodeo, working as a groom for $2 a day. He learned his first guitar chords and cowboy songs from a rodeo clown.

In 1951, Elliott discovered the recordings of Woody Guthrie. He tracked down the brilliant Dust Bowl balladeer at his home in Howard Beach, N.Y., and spent the next three years traveling across the country with him, absorbing Guthrie's wry talking-blues style.

"Woody was too honest, too real, for people to tolerate," Elliott said. "They wanted things sugared-up. Woody wouldn't do that.

"Even the Weavers, a left-wing folk group, changed the words around and softened up So Long, It's Been Good to Know You to make it more appealing."

After Guthrie was hospitalized in 1954 with Huntington's Chorea (the disease that would eventually kill him), Elliott took off for Europe. He spent six years busking on the streets of Paris and haunting the skiffle clubs of London.

Once he serenaded a group of English school children at a train stop. Twenty-five years later, one of those children named Mick Jagger told Ramblin' Jack that the experience had inspired him to buy his first guitar.

Upon his return to America in 1961, Elliott found himself at the forefront of a full-fledged folk revival. He met Dylan on a visit to Guthrie's hospital bed in New Jersey. The two became friends, and Elliott passed on to Dylan what he'd learned from Guthrie.

But while Dylan evolved into a brilliant original songwriter in his own right, Elliott remained primarily an interpreter, the modern epitome of a wandering minstrel. He's recorded sporadically over the decades, including four albums on Columbia, six on Prestige and two on Vanguard.

His 1995 Vanguard release, South Coast, won a Grammy in the traditional folk category, though Elliott does not seem overly impressed by the honor.

"It hasn't sold very well," he said. "At least not according to the record label. Of course, you can never believe what a record label tells you."

Friends of Mine is the summation of Elliott's recording career. He and producer Roy Rogers recorded the album on their own during a two-year period, then sold the finished product to Hightone.

Appropriately enough, Elliott met Rogers -- a superb slide-blues guitarist -- when the two were cast as singing hobos in an unreleased independent film about the Barrow gang.

"Roy played a National steel guitar, which is an instrument that I've always enjoyed the sound of," Elliott said. "We sat around and jammed the whole day. As a result of that experience, we decided to make an album together."

Virtually every song on the album is a gem. Arlo Guthrie duets on the singing-cowboy classic Ridin' Down the Canyon, while Harris and Griffith trade verses on Van Zandt's Rex's Blues (written for Old Quarter Cafe owner Rex Bell).

Rowan backs Elliott on a disarmingly matter-of-fact reading of Ely's Me and Billy the Kid, while Walker is featured on Guthrie's Hard Travelin' and an old folk song often credited to Dylan, He Was a Friend of Mine. Waits wrote Louise specifically for this album, while Weir adds harmonies to the Grateful Dead's Friend of the Devil.

Interestingly, the one song on the album Elliott wishes had been left off is the one he wrote. Bleeker Street Blues was written for Dylan after Elliott learned of his old friend's serious illness last year. The lyrics look back warmly on the Greenwich Village years up through Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour in the mid-'70s.

"That's embarrassing. There's a little bit too much name-dropping in there," Elliott said.

Perhaps he might feel differently if Dylan had acknowledged his concern, but Elliott indicated he'd be surprised if that happened.

"You can't get to that guy now. He's in his own world," Elliott said. "But there's no telling. He might show up or something."

If Dylan shows up anywhere on this tour, he'd better bring a guitar and a song. If he doesn't, there'll be four other "Monsters of Folk" onstage; three to show him where the music has gone, and one to remind him of where it came from.

this article stolen from http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/ae/clubs/cover/0409elliott.html