The ballad of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

by David Guilbault (16 June 2020, MSNBC)

Jack Elliott performs Woody Guthrie's "Grand Coulee Dam" at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle.

SEATTLE, June 16 — All my life, as a bona fide ’60s folkie, I heard about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, but I never actually heard the legendary folksinger and roustabout. I knew he rambled with Woody Guthrie and Jack Keroauc and inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and a whole generation of Greenwich Village troubadours. Now, thanks to a new documentary on his life, some recent CDs and an afternoon being regaled by the man, I know why listeners are drawn to the storyteller and his tales.

RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT’S own story is pure Americana. At the restless age of 15, Elliott Charles Adnopoz fled his suburban Long Island upbringing, hitched a ride south with a trucker, joined a rodeo, became enamored with cowboy reverie, and along the way changed his name to Jack Elliott.
       He’s been ropin’, ridin’, singin’, pickin’, truckin’, sailin’, tokin’, drinkin’, marryin’, yodelin’, travelin’ and ramblin’ ever since.
       Elliott taught himself guitar and became a musical sponge, absorbing and enhancing hot flat-picking guitar licks he learned by listening to records over and over, and by hanging with some folk and blues greats.
       Musically, Elliott is perhaps best known for his early dead-on faithful renditions of Woody Guthrie songs. Jack hung with the prolific folk-song composer, traveled with him, lived with him, cared for him, learned from him, and carried on for him after Woody passed on from Huntington’s disease.
       Over the years, Elliott’s song interpretations and repertoire grew, harvesting the landscape of cowboy poetry and true American country and western music.
       As Elliott had learned from Guthrie, young singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan learned from Elliott, adopting his style of singing and wishing to emulate his lifestyle.
       Although he had big-label record deals in the U.S., commercial success eluded him, perhaps by chance, perhaps by choice. In any event, he stopped making records for about two decades. But he never stopped performing.

High bandwidth (20 MB) Switch between three camera angles as Elliot performs excerpt from "With God on Our Side."
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       In the last decade of the 20th century, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot has been on a roll. A 1996 album for Redhouse Records, “South Coast,” won a Grammy for best traditional folk album. That was followed by two CDs from Hightone Records, produced by blues artist Roy Rogers, “Friends of Mine” and “The Long Ride.”
       On “Friends of Mine,” he performs duets with Arlo Guthrie, Guy Clark, Tom Waits, John Prine, Rosalie Sorrels, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Jerry Jeff Walker. That’s a helluva a roster of friends. The album is a treat.
       There are also a variety of good reissues of his earliest recordings on CD, like “Hard Travelin’, ” from Fantasy Records. Still, he is largely unheard by the general record-buying public.
       A new documentary by his daughter Aiyana Elliott, now making the festival circuit, may change that. Called “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack,” it is a poignant look at Elliott’s place in American folk music and how the endless stream of distant places he wandered made him a distant father. Jack says it should have been called “In Search of Ramblin’ Jack.”
       He first saw the film at the 2000 Sundance festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Artistic Achievement. “There were moments when I was proud and moments when I wanted to disappear down into the floor,” he said.
       Aiyana Elliott told me “personal, emotional reasons I don’t entirely understand” drove her to make the movie about her father’s career because she found it “frustrating to hear his life reduced to just the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.” She wanted to give him his professional due.
       But she also wanted to explore their life-long, long-distance relationship. She admits that even after traveling with him and filming him on the road for the documentary, she still sees her father partly as an enigma. In the film, she laments, “I’ve got everything but you Dad.”
       The film features rare early performances and interviews with friends and family. It opens in New York City on Aug. 16 and a soundtrack is also to be issued by Vanguard Records in early August, featuring songs from the movie and never-before-released duets with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
       Elliott was never known as a ‘family man’, although he had four wives — June, Patty, Polly and Martha. But he befriended people all over the country who considered him friend and family.
       He told me, “I’ve been part of many families ... in which I wasn’t married to their daughter. I was just a friend. After being a friend for some time they said, ‘Jack, you’re family.’ And that felt really good.” He went on to say, “A friend is somebody who will give you a helping hand and not demand payment.” Every story I’ve now heard told of Elliott is about time well spent.
       By the way, the ramblin’ moniker, which folksinger Odetta’s mother gave him, isn’t about his travels, it’s about his stories, which are anything but short. Everyone who talks of Jack Elliott has their own story of how he kept them in rapt attention for hours with tales from his life. I know. I heard some of them straight from the source.

       There’s no denying that Elliott is charming and engaging. I’m sitting with him and his soon-to-be fifth wife, Ramblin’ Jan Currie in a restaurant booth at Hattie’s Hat, down the street from Tractor Tavern where he’s playing. We’re having dinner between the sound-check and the gig.
       Jack is visibly tired and worried about having the energy to do the show after being up since 4 a.m. doing press interviews. Still, while picking at a plate of meatloaf with Guiness gravy (on the side), homemade creamed corn and pinto beans (his favorite), he goes on and on generously and randomly with his wandering thoughts. He talks about:

       If he hadn’t had to leave to get ready for his gig, he surely would have gone on regaling me. And I would have been enthralled.
       At 68 and still pickin’, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a living testament to the joys of a serendipitous and uncomplicated life.
       And he continues to be an inspiration to new folkies. Singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding showed up at the screening of the documentary in Seattle and at the pre-show dinner and then performed with Elliott at the Tractor Tavern — all so he could spend time with Elliott and have stories of his own to tell.
       When I asked Ramblin’ Jack what he wanted to be known for, he offered a simple answer: “The man who gave a million dollars worth of entertainment for every five hundred thousand dollars we took in at the door.”
       When I asked what were the necessities of a ramblin’ life, his answer was even simpler: “A guitar and guitar picks, a toothbrush and toothpicks.”
       Now I hear ya Jack.

David Guilbault is a senior producer for News at
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