by Bob Gulla (11 May 2020, Providence Phoenix)
Part-wandering troubadour, part-cosmic cowboy, part-Beat poet, part-eccentric iconoclast, Ramblin' Jack Elliott is one of America's little-known national treasures. Elliott's musical roots begin back in the '40s, when he made the acquaintance of simpatico itinerant and singing cowboy Woody Guthrie. The two hit it off and zig-zagged the country together for 10-plus years, ending up in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he and Guthrie began impacting the city's nascent folk scene almost immediately. But when the Village scene grew in stature, Elliott beat a trail out of town, all the way to California.
Never one to stay put for too long, Elliott picked up and started traveling once again, gathering stories and collecting friends. He toured as part of Bob Dylan's infamous Rolling Thunder Revue in the early '70s and hung out with sublime Beat Generation artistes like Jack Kerouac (who apparently read him the entirety of On the Road before it had been published), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. He established friendships with fellow eccentrics like Lou Reed, Tim Hardin, and Phil Ochs. He was one of them. They believed in each other.
But perhaps better than most of his candle-burning, forward-thinking folk contemporaries, Elliott has found a way to survive. Not only has he remained an active recording artist, notching between 40 and 150 albums, (depending on who you ask), he's also maintained a healthy alliance with his following, never staying away for too long, always maintaining a high quality creative output.
But the Brooklyn-born Elliott began making real impact, at least commercially, starting in 1996 when he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for South Coast. That followed in 1998 with the release of his HighTone Records debut, Friends of Mine, which generated critical praise, features on CNN and CBS' Sunday Morning and another Grammy nomination. Of course, media coverage only told part of the story. Elliott recruited some serious "friends" for the recording, including Nanci Griffith, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Rosalie Sorrels. The year was capped with Elliott being named a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the nation's most prestigious arts award, in a ceremony held at the White House. And be on the lookout for an acclaimed documentary called, appropriately, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, produced and directed by his daughter.
On his latest album, The Long Ride, Ramblin' Jack hooks up once again with a gang of musicians and special guests. Tom Russell rambles on the stream-of-consciousness song-speak, "Cup of Coffee," a tune Jack had written and performed with Johnny Cash. Another of Elliott's buddies, Dave Alvin, harmonizes with Jack on the traditional ballad "East Virginia Blues." Long-time friend and original folkie Dave Van Ronk duets with Jack on the rousing standard "St. James Infirmary." Maria Muldaur adds her lovely vocals to "Picture of Life's Other Side," a traditional folk song that Jack first heard sung by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston while riding in a car almost 50 years ago. Rounding out the record, Elliott covers Woody Guthrie, Ernest Tubbs, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan as well, which gives you some idea of the man's good-tasting eclecticism. It's a recording you oughta have.
But Elliott's recorded history is only half the story. The man is and has always been a true-blue original, in the same way original thinkers like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan are, in the way people who think nothing about what others think are. Elliott approaches and confronts life in singular fashion, and has made an honest living being, well, himself.
Elliott rides into Providence for the first time in a number of years, this time for his Stone Soup Coffeehouse debut. "I lived in Newport for two years in the '80s," says Elliott in a phone interview. "I would come in to Providence occasionally, maybe to watch a trial or something. I didn't really care too much for Newport, though. I wouldn't mind living in one of those mansions, or in one of those buses that visit the mansions."
Elliott will likely dust off a pocketful of his better-known cowboy songs and hillbilly ballads for his Providence show. "I don't exactly know what my expectations are," he admits. "I guess it's the same anticipation that I've had every day for the last 50 years on the road: I hope there's no electrical problems, no fire in the building, and I hope I do the best job I can. I don't go around thinking about it. Oh, and you gotta make friends with the sound man."
Elliott also serves his potential Saturday night audience with a warning. "I'm not real good in front of loud drinkers," he says. But you never really know how much of what he says he means in jest. "But even then [they've] been known to quiet down or even listen. I don't work a lot of noisy places anymore. I have a more attentive and appreciative crowds."
The singer might also introduce listeners to two new tunes he recorded for a Woody Guthrie kids' music tribute planned for release on Rounder. The one whose title he remembers is called "Curly Headed Baby." "I was readin' them in the studio, so I haven't learned 'em yet. It takes me an awful long time to learn a song so I'm reluctant to put a new batch of songs together with any frequency. My learning speed is slow. I memorize it first then I learn it."
So, as his loyal following knows, he dips into the ocean-deep repertoire of the great folk song writers: Bob Dylan, John Prine, Guy Clark, and Guthrie remain his favorites. "I've got one song by Townes Van Zandt that I learned for the new album. I told Townes before he died, 'I've been trying to learn your song 'Pancho and Lefty' for two months. And he said to me, 'Well, I've been trying to learn that song for four years, Jack.' "
What does Elliott look for in a song? First he needs to know "if a song is great. I need to identify with it. It's the one single that matters. There are songs out there that everyone loves and everyone copies, but it might not be my thing."
And speaking of "things," Elliott still abides by one of the cardinal laws of the cowboy movement. In response to a question about whether he owns his own recordings, or any kind of record collection, Elliott says, "I don't wanna own anything. All you need to own is the stuff that came out of the placenta when you were born -- your skin, your lungs, your liver, your fingernails, your eyes. OK, maybe your guitar, maybe your gun, and maybe your horse. Those other things -- your car, your house, your daughter, those are things you don't own. We're in a 'thing' society. Everyone needs to have some 'thing.' I don't get it."
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