Living Legend
Ramblin' Jack Elliott keeps folk standards high

by Chris Flisher (2 May 2020, The Worcester Phoenix,)

After a long-winded and meandering conversation with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, it's fairly easy to see how he got his name. One thing that's not clear, though, is if he got the moniker for being a wandering troubadour or for simply being overly talkative. As a legendary figure on the American folk-music scene, Elliott has rubbed elbows and caroused with the best, so in that sense it doesn't really matter how or why he got his name as long as he lives up to it.

Rest assured that he successfully rises to the challenge in both cases. A true original in every sense of the word, Elliott, who appears at the Bull Run Concert Series, in Shirley, on May 3, epitomizes the wandering troubadour and all the imagined attachments thereof. The open road, the freedom, the adventure of spontaneity, all coalesce in an archetypical vision of America as witnessed by this traveling musician. Shades of Jack Kerouac, Dean Moriarty, and the forever-wandering American cowboy come to light in the stories told by Elliott. In the end, there is no better way to talk to a rambler than to let him ramble.

"I left home when I was 15 with $40 in my pocket and a head full of adventure," he growls. "Took the subway straight out of Brooklyn, hitchhiked across the George Washington Bridge, and headed south. I got as far as Washington, DC, where I saw a billboard for the J.E. Ranch Rodeo. I walked over to the rodeo master and got a job and never looked back." (Let the listener beware, Elliott hates the term "Brooklyn Cowboy." "It really offends me. It smacks of phony labeling. Don't they know Billy the Kid was born in Brooklyn?")

Elliott's parents (a doctor and a school teacher) finally found him three months later and hauled his saddle-sore hide back to Brooklyn where he finished school and learned to play the guitar in effort to escape from the city's chilly streets. He looked through songbooks and covered old jazz standards, becoming an original interpreter of the music of Americana. Soon after moving home he became friends with Woody Guthrie who was busy living his own legend.

"Woody liked my guitar playing, and we became friends right off," he recalls. "That was 1951. So I teamed up with him and ended up moving in with him and his wife. Arlo was just about 4 then. Anyway, I used to look over his shoulder as he'd sit there at the typewriter and knock off these songs just as quick as you could blink. And each time they'd be perfect and needed no correcting. So after watching that I realized there was no way I was gonna top that. And I decided it would be better if I just did what I did best and find the songs and interpret them the way they suited me. It's served me well all these years."

Elliott's repertoire spans the history of American popular music. From Gene Autry's cowboy songs to back-road blues to the songbook of Woody Guthrie, he delivers his version of the music that evolved as America evolved. Each time he imbues his songs with a colorful flair for tension, emotion, and wit. Like a modern-day Will Rodgers, Elliott provides a theatrical edge you come to expect from a person as road-wise as he. His tenacity as a survivor and his stature as a performer have served him well over the years. He was finally recognized for his work in 1996 when he won a Grammy for the "Best Traditional Folk Album" for his South Coast (Red House) release. South Coast includes Elliott's renditions of Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty," Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," and "Cocaine Blues," by the Reverend Gary Davis.

After 40 albums in as many years, he records today much the way he has lived his life -- with spontaneity. "We recorded that album in three days in a nice studio out in Minnesota," he chuckles. "I just walked in knocked out some songs, and it got me a Grammy. The next thing I'm workin' on has all kinds of cameos and guests on it. Everybody's helping me from Jerry Jeff [Walker] to Guy Clark to Emmy Lou Harris, so I spect it will do pretty good. I got all kinds of good stuff on there, like `He Was a Friend of Mine,' and others."

Trying to get a word in, I keep getting stuck mid-sentence in our conversation. "Did I tell you about recording South Coast?," he asks. "We were up there and the Mississippi was flooding 30 feet over its banks, like it is now, and I caught some air-borne germs from the flood debris and it infected my sinuses for nine months! Well I tried everything, finally went to a holistic doctor, and he gave me some ground-up tree bark or something and cured me just like that. Changed my voice though, I'm a lot rougher than I used to be. Did I tell you about that? I tend to ramble on a bit."

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