Ramblin' through Town
Folk legend Jack Elliott has a knack for takin' a good story and makin' it his own

by Tim Ryan (25 April 2020, Honolulu Star-Bulletin)

HE glides in slowly on snug-fitting cowboy boots, wearing a well-turned-down cowboy hat. Black Levis hang loosely on his hips, the 36-inch inseam far too long. The dark blue, 12-button bibbed cowboy shirt is neatly pressed.

At 63, Ramblin' Jack Elliott stands slightly hunched, his dark pupils penetrating, but with a touch of sweetness, depth, and - it seems - the promise of forgiveness.

Elliott these days carries his guitar case with two hands. He gladly accepts a new and slightly younger acquaintance's offer to assist while he readjusts his off-kilter bifocals. One earpiece is juryrigged with layers of thin string - he stepped on them during the previous night's flight from his northern California home.

Elliott, a legend among legends in folk music, has seen it all in his 50-plus years in the music business and nearly equal amount of time rambling over the nation's highways.

"The singin' has been fun, but I'm not a music lover; I'm a truck lover," he says with a cautious laugh. "I like traveling and truck traveling is my favorite mode of going down the road."

During the 1950s and '60s, when Elliott would hitchhike across the country with his guitar, truck drivers required the young man to play for a ride.

"It kept them awake. Then they taught me how to drive when they got tired. Boy, I loved that."

These days he drives a big rig only once a year when he hits the road on his own.

"But it's gotta be at least an 18- wheeler. I like big equipment, handling something so heavy, and controllin' it."

Elliott's been playing music since the 1940s and is a vital link between Woody Guthrie and his dominant influence, and the folk artists of the '60s and after. He has recorded more than 40 albums, claiming he "never made money off of any of them."

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

This may be the year that legacy changes. Elliott just won a Grammy for "South Coast" - best traditional folk album - and suddenly he is in demand.

"I used to do only 60 concerts a year. That may double 'cause of that damn Grammy. I was going to use it as a hood ornament for my motor home until I saw how nice it was. Never thought anything I'd ever do would be worth something like this. Folk music ... don't rate very high."

He was born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn, but Ramblin' Jack Elliott got a name that fit his lifestyle after running away from home at 14 to join a rodeo, then touring with Guthrie for years.

"I'm still running away from home every chance I get."

About the nickname?

"Two people claim to be the author and I give them both credit. I used to visit (folk singer) Odetta when we were both kids and one day her mom just yelled out 'Hey Odetta, Ramblin' Jack is here'."

Bob Neuwirth, Bob Dylan's road manager for many years, dubbed Elliott 'Ramblin' for his travels. And several others say it's simply because his stories go on and on and on.

Spend a few minutes with him and you'll understand. In his tale about the nickname, Elliott starts talking about serenading James Dean in his white Porsche in a Sunset Boulevard restaurant parking lot, getting the first read of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" novel, that he drove a nuclear submarine part of the way from Lahaina to Pearl Harbor in his first trip to Hawaii 10 years ago, how he learned to scuba dive in Santa Cruz, and that sailing is really his first love and not truck driving. All this in one breath.

"I know how to sail pretty good. My next door neighbor in Brooklyn was an old whaler out of New Bedford, Mass., and then a New York Harbor pilot. He trained me to be a merchant marine and made me memorize the names of all the standing and running rigging on a clipper ship, the 32 compass points and knots and splicing.

"Had an 11-1/2-foot Penguin Dinghy when I was 16 but lost it in a hurricane; got another one now that I sail in Tomales Bay. Got a 16-foot mast."

If you could judge singers by their taste in songs Elliott would be among the most acclaimed figures in the modern pop era. Listen to his records and it may seem that some of his versions of songs are almost amateurish as his phrasing tends to drift in and out of focus as he maneuvers through the lines in another way that frequently lives up to his nickname.

So why are songwriters like Dylan invariably charmed by Elliott's renditions? The answer lies in the affection that Elliott brings to every performance. Whether on stage or in the recording studio, there is a strong, unapologetic love of the material in Elliott's delivery that makes the music disarming.

"I've always done songs that move me, like Woody's songs. He had something to say, a story to tell about real people. It's good to tell a story about what's going on in the world. Music is simply an aide to navigation, a way of spreading the story. The entertainment is only important if the message is getting across."

Elliott befriended Guthrie during Guthrie's later years in the 1950s. He carried on the Guthrie tradition with a marvelous sense of mission, singing his songs - like "Talking Fisherman Blues" - with the same obvious love he shows for Dylan tunes, but also with discipline and command that enables his versions at times to rival Guthrie's own.

Elliott never planned to make his award-winning album because he was burned out on the record industry.

"It's not like performing on stage where you get instantaneous reaction and paid the same day. With a record company you don't even get paid in the same lifetime."

Elliott is resolved that his career remains performing on the road even though he says traveling now is "terribly uncomfortable."

"When I was younger the plane was bigger, the rooms were warmer, the food was better and the stewardesses a little more beautiful. Now the bags are heavier, places are more dangerous, and airports too crowded."

And what's the nicest thing anyone ever said about him?

"Mama Cass (of the Mamas and the Papas) said I was the sexiest man alive. Now I don't know where she got the idea because we had never been to bed or anything. But I did smoke a joint with her in her Porsche, and that was a beautiful car, just like James Dean's, which was the first Porsche in the United States and...."

Photo by Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin

This article was dug up at http://starbulletin.com/96/06/06/features/story1.html