Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Cindy McGlynn (25 April 2020, Live Eye -- Toronto's arts newspaper)

It's a good feeling, knowing that some people can still live up to their names.

Knowing, for example, that a conversation with folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott really is just as friendly and tangential -- and long -- as you'd please.

After running away to join the rodeo at 15, busking around the country with Woody Guthrie, recording dozens of albums and criss-crossing America hitching rides with 18-wheelers, Elliott has a story or two to tell.

And having made his first studio album in more than a quarter of a century -- and winning a Grammy for it -- Elliott's got reason to be flogging his wares again.

No one's more surprised than Ramblin' Jack. "I wasn't interested in recording much, because I'd done 39 albums and I never achieved any kind of success from that," says the ramblin' man, on the line from California where he's getting ready to take his cat Arlo to the vet to get wormed. "Then Bob Feldman said, 'Listen, Jack, when's the last time you made a studio album?'

"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.' "

And so the Grammy-winning South Coast (Red House Records) was born. It's a nice traditional collection ("I Ain't Got No Home," "If I Were A Carpenter") and many songs Jack's recorded before. Reading the pages of friendly endorsements from Jack's contemporaries lets you know producer Bob Feldman concocted South Coast as a kind of a Memories Of/Greatest Hits/Comeback album. Which is silly, since Jack's alive and kicking at 64, driving his motorhome to cowboy poetry gatherings and watching rodeos and whatnot. He's not dead -- he just doesn't like recording studios. (They recorded South Coast in three nights, working four hours a night.)

Still, it's fortifying to hear Jack's sandpaper voice smoothing the edges of the old songs -- and gratifying to hear he might see some cash from it.

His life may not have been full of money, but it's been full of everything else. His motorhome's parked at his home outside San Francisco now, but he's been everywhere, seen it all and been alive, oh, about forever.

Want to talk about bull riding?

"I rode bulls, real live bulls, at a bull riding school back when I was 47 years old and got to ride four of them in about a week's time and that was enough for me and I was glad I didn't get killed. Didn't get hurt either. I chose only the easiest bulls I could pick in the herd."

What makes a good song?

"Usually the song sells itself to me after I've heard somebody really good singing it. Like Ray Charles. It's a wonderful song. (Jack sings) 'Let me tell you about a girl I know/ She is my baby and she lives next door...' If you read the words off the paper it may look like the stupidest song you ever saw. But you hear Ray Charles sing it with his spirit and his love and his rhythm and his authority and he makes it into a beautiful thing. I tried to record it and it was a mistake. I've never met Ray Charles, but I'd love to and the first thing I'd have to do is apologize to him for having ever recorded his song."


"I've been reading some articles recently about 'is there any sense of neighborhood in cyberspace?' Where people can dial up any people in the world and just have conversations about their favorite subject, whether it's planting potatoes or fishing or airplanes or whatever they want to talk about. Folk music -- they got it on cyberspace. I guess I was born about a hundred years too late. I still like old- fashioned sailboats and things like that. My girlfriend says I'm roadkill on the information highway."

Before you start thinking that Jack's just a quaint old rambler, don't forget that Bob Dylan used to call himself "Son of Jack Elliott," Woody Guthrie called him a friend and Jack Kerouac read him the then- unpublished manuscript of On The Road. Recently, Woody's daughter handed over a couple of lyric sheets for unfinished Guthrie songs, hoping Jack can write the music and sing them the way Woody would have wanted.

People say it ad nauseam and in this case I'm inclined to believe them.

Ramblin' Jack is what you might call the real thing.

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