Folk star Ramblin' Jack Elliott has the words and the tunes

by Buddy Seigal (13 April 2020, San Diego Union-Tribune)

Folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliott got his nickname from a propensity to meander verbally rather than, as one might assume, traveling the globe as a troubadour.

Elliott bore that out in a recent interview. Quick with a story but long to tell it, he's the type of fellow who might describe a trip to the market thusly: "Got in my car. It's an '84 Buick. Closed the door and opened the window. Started 'er up. Pulled out of the driveway. Turned on my left blinker 'cause another car was coming. It was a Toyota pickup. A couple girls inside, probably in their mid-20s. ..."

You get the picture.

Inevitably, the estuaries in Elliott's lengthy soliloquies tend to lead back to Woody Guthrie, perhaps the most famous folksinger in history and an early mentor to Elliott, now 69. A few years after he started singing, the Brooklyn-born Elliott hooked up with Guthrie and traveled with him throughout the early '50s -- despite protestations from his father to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor -- until Guthrie was hospitalized with Huntington's chorea in 1954. To this day, he obviously reveres the man who wrote such anthems as "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty" and "Grand Coulee Dam," and readily admits to being, at least initially, a Guthrie imitator.

"He had a lighthearted personality," Elliott says of his hero. "He liked to joke a lot, he had kind of a simple country humor, and he had a marvelous sense of words, being the great poet that he was. And he had a great sense of rhythm, which I admired greatly and tried to learn from. There was sort of an operatic sadness that he portrayed in his songs, although he described it in a lighthearted approach, like newspaper reportage, reciting the facts unemotionally, leaving it up to the listener to feel the emotions.

"His influence on me was very profound. I went around trying to sing and play the guitar just like him, and I did a pretty good imitation, so they tell me. Woody himself said, 'Jack sounds more like me than I do.' "

Elliott, who performs this weekend at the Adams Avenue Roots Festival, became a celebrated performer on his own, though, and from the mid-'50s on released albums and toured the world. Along with Guthrie, he became an influence on other folk performers. In 1961, he saw Guthrie for the last time and met a young folksinger named Bob Dylan in Guthrie's hospital room.

"I think I had quite an impact on him," asserts Elliott. "He went around imitating me, and I learned some things from Dylan, too, and copied a little bit of his style. (He was) impossible to describe. He was a close friend for a short time in 1962 and 1963, then we drifted apart. He moved up to Woodstock and started playing with the Band and going big time. I saw less and less of him. He took me on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, and we'd sometimes have a drink together, but he was drifting off into his own world and wasn't very sociable. He's totally reclusive. I can't get to him, I don't even know his phone number."

From 1967 through 1994, Elliott never stepped foot into a recording studio. "They weren't paying me any money, and I got pretty disgusted with the record business," he says. "So I was just performing and touring, as I always have done."

Elliott' 1995 "comeback" album, "South Coast," netted a Grammy, and his last two albums -- "Friends of Mine" and "Long Ride" -- have been critically acclaimed collections of new originals and classic folk songs that have gained the veteran singer a whole new legion of fans. He's particularly fond of "Long Ride," which features such guests as Dave Alvin, Dave Van Ronk, Roy Rogers, Norton Buffalo and Tom Russell, and feels it's his best effort yet:

"It's my hottest album. I like it the best. I don't always feel that way about a new album, either."

Perhaps Elliott's most celebrated latter-day song is "Bleeker Street Blues," from "Friends of Mine." Written in 1997, when Dylan was hospitalized and his condition looked potentially life-threatening, the song was a sentimental, deeply moving outpouring of emotion and concern for his old friend. Ironically and sadly, Elliott now regrets having written the song.

"I'm almost sorry I did that," he sighs. "There's been no response. I haven't gotten any call or letter from him saying, 'Thanks, I liked what you said in that there song.'Nothing. It's been almost two years since that came out. I just feel a little bit silly having even bothered to go out of my way to write that song because he didn't even seem to care. Who knows? Could be he's just shy. He drank a lot of wine and other things and it may have affected his mind, too."


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