Singing "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack"

by Elina Shatkin (10 May 2020, EditorsNet, a division of Creative Planet, Inc.)

Producer/Director/Cinematographer: Aiyana Elliott
Co-Editor: Susan Littenberg

Ramblin' Jack with daughter/
filmmaker Aiyana Elliott
"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" began as a simple class project to create a video portrait, but it turned into a three-year odyssey for Aiyana Elliott, daughter of legendary folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott. The film recently won the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement in the documentary category at Sundance 2000 and has been picked up for distribution by Lot 47. Viewed as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack Elliott has spent over half a century traveling the country, singing folk songs. In the process, he accumulated four wives, the last one of which was Martha Elliott, the mother of Aiyana.

Born in 1931 to middle-class Jewish parents, Elliot Charles Adnopoz ran away from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home at the age of 15 and joined the rodeo. Elliott met Guthrie while the later was recovering from a ruptured appendix in 1951. Three years later, the duo drove out to California in an old Buick, where Elliott met up with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, among other left-wing artists and intellectuals. Elliott soon travelled to England, where he was a walking, talking Woody Guthrie songbook. After a German tour, he returned to America in 1958. Thoroughly ignored in his homeland, he flew back to England within a year. Moving away from the Guthrie mimicry that he had adopted, Elliott began incorporating spoken word and free-form raps into his act.

He returned to New York in the early 1960s and immediately visted Guthrie, who was in the hospital suffering from Huntington's Chorea. It was at Guthrie's bedside where he met a young folk singer named Bob Dylan, one of the many devotees who had come to pay homage to Guthrie. Elliott taught Guthrie's folk songs to Dylan, who was often introduced at his performances as "The Son of Jack Elliott." Dylan soon went on to become a bigger star than either of his mentors.

Elliott churned out several CDs in the first half of the 1960s and signed a two-record deal with Warner Bros. in 1967. Disgusted with the way Warner Bros. produced and marketed his work, he soon moved away from recording and spent the following years playing the club scene and working with other artists. This included a stint on the short-lived "The Johnny Cash Show."

In 1975, Dylan asked Elliott to join The Rolling Thunder Review where he alternated with or performed alongside such artists as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, T-Bone Burnett, Arlo Guthrie and Robbie Robertson. After the close of the second, disastrous Rolling Thunder tour, he returned to rambling and singing. In 1980, he went to Germany to play on a sampler of folk music and ended up recording an entire album, "Kerouac's Last Dream."

It would be 15 years before Elliott would make another studio album, but when he did, he received numerous awards including a Grammy. After the release of "South Coast," he was awarded the 1996 National Medal of Arts. His two following albums, "Friends of Mine" and "The Long Ride," have also received Grammy nominations in the Best Traditional Folk Category.

"When I was at NYU, I did a short piece on my dad for a video class. We had to do a portrait, and my dad happened to be playing a show that week. We received a lot of encouragement to do a longer piece. From that point on, I felt that it was something I should do. My background had been in fiction filmmaking, so I wanted to wait. But many of my dad's contemporaries started dying, and I felt that I should do it now.

"I started following him around, shooting as much as I could. My dad has a lifelong hatred of cameras, and many people have tried to make documentaries about him that were never completed, primarily because my dad was uncomfortable with them. He's also somebody who's had a hard time in the recording studio, because he's best live. So I thought we should follow him and shoot a lot of foootage, hoping that we could capture him in the moment. I don't know that I did that. But in time, he became quite relaxed around the camera, and I'm pleased that we eventually captured some high-caliber performance footage.

"When I set out to make the film, I discovered all this archival footage that I didn't know existed; it was a tremendous amount of footage that spanned about six decades. I also felt that it was important to tell his whole life story with all of its scope. I didn't initially think that it would be our story, but it became personal, and it's basically about our attempt to communicate.

"I was reluctant to incorporate myself into the film and unsure about how to do it. But I received a great deal of feedback from people who thought that was the interesting aspect -- the fact that I was making the film. I wanted to find a way to bring the material to life and make it resonate emotionally. The process of finding and asserting my voice in the film was intuitive.

"I started out shooting on Hi-8, but none of that stuff made it into the film. From there we started shooting 16mm, and I brought in an experienced cameraman. But an average story of my dad's lasts 17 minutes, so we would roll out at crucial points of story. From there, we switched to DV. We also shot a bunch of Super-8 that we used as B-roll in the film.

"With the interviews, I chose not to light people or pose them or steer them in certain directions. We ended up with a great deal of disparate material -- approximatley 150 hours -- that we had to try to shape into a story. It was a tremendous editing challenge.

"We started out with a different editor, David Baum, who I knew from NYU. We worked for several months with the material before I decided that we needed to script Jack's life and make this the backbone of the film -- shaping the archival and interview around it. (Producer) Dick Dahl, David and I worked together, doing that for three to four months and arrived at a rough cut that was the backbone of the film. David took a break and went to AFI for the directing program, so we brought on Susan Littenberg.

"We cut for about two months with Susan, but we still had a tremendous amount to do. We had shot more interviews and pulled together additional footage to flush out the story. Because my background is in narrative filmmaking, we tried to give the film a traditional dramatic structure with a conflict, confrontation and conclusion. But we had many different structures we were working with, so it was very complicated."

Aiyana Elliott, Producer/Director/Cinematographer
"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack"

"I've been friends with Aiyana for six or seven years -- before she even started working on this project -- but I've been working as a film editor for 10 years. We knew each other through the music scene. I was excited about the documentary, because I had seen several rough cuts of the film. I was one of the first people to see any kind of assembly, so I gave her my feedback right from the start. By the time I came onto the film, I was already close to it.

"I worked on it for the last four months of the editing process, which were very intensive. The first thing I thought Aiyana needed to do was to cut in B-roll. There were many black holes in the film, where she had ideas about what she wanted but she hadn't cut the B-roll in yet. Early on in that process, she had Dick Dahl and Paul Mezey go to the National Archives and gather material for us. We got archival rodeo footage and all this amazing road footage from the 1950's and old cowboy movies. We began incorporating that, which was a rushed process, because we wanted to get it into Sundance.

"The last third of the film had a lot of problems with the flow. It seemed like the transitions were not working, and moving from one section of the story to another was awkward. I tried shuffling whole chunks around and putting it in chronological order, which it wasn't at one point. I thought the film would be easier for people to understand if the story was chronological. And I also thought it was important to start putting titles in to see how that would help tell the story. We added names and dates to frame the story in a more narrative way.

"The personal aspect of it was very emotional for Aiyana, because she was making a story about her father. I think it's good that I was already close to her, because I was better able to deal with some of the emotional issues that cropped up in the editing room. When you're dealing with your family, and you're dealing with some raw emotions, the long hours really take their toll."

Susan Littenberg, Co-Editor
"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack"

Production Company: Digital Filmworks


Aiyana Elliott
Screenwriters: Aiyana Elliott
Dick Dahl
Producers: Aiyana Elliott
Paul Mezey
Dan Partland
Co-Producer: Dick Dahl
Editors: Susan Littenberg
David Baum
Music: Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Executive Producers: Hunter Gray
Tyler Brodie
Jesse Crawford
Associate Producers: Susannah Ludwig
Cameron Brodie
David Brendel
Consulting Producers: Art Horan
June Shelley



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