Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Bruce Sylvester (4 July 2020, Goldmine)

America's troubadour tradition reaches back past singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers to Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dylan, Woody's son Arlo, Springsteen and newcomers like Dan Bern.

"He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," Kris Kristofferson sang of Elliott in "The Pilgrim". Though Jack Kerouac himself left life on the road years before he died, Jack Elliott, at age 65, still rambles. Sam Shepard calls him "a wandering, mythical, true American minstrel."

Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz on August 1, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York ("on a 45,000 -acre ranch in the middle of Flatbush," he claims), he was enchanted with cowboys at age nine when he saw his first rodeo -- in Madison Square Garden. Brooklyn couldn't hold the lad much longer, as he relates here.

In the early 1950s, Jack met Woody Guthrie, perhaps the most vital figure in all of American folk music. Following him around the country, Jack played Sancho Panza to Woody's Don Quixote. "He sings more like me than I do," Woody said of Jack, who's now one of the few 50s folkies still touring.

Sure, his singing voice cracks with age, but he's become a classic interpreter as he digs deep into the souls of his songs and narrations like "South Coast" and his own composition "912 Greens" with the stunning line "Did you ever stand and shiver just because you were looking at a river?"

Jack's few '60s and '70s albums are mostly in print thanks to Fantasy's "Hard Travelin'", Vanguard's "The Essential Ramblin' Jack Elliott" (including a previously unissued 1965 concert recording) and Rounder's "Me & Bobby McGee". Very unhappy with the record industry, Jack put out no more albums until 1990's live "Legends of Folk" (Red House) with oldtimers U. Utah Phillips and Spider John Koerner. To his surprise and delight, his first studio album in 25 years, "South Coast" (Red House) won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album last year. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged that he'd never watched the Grammy awards.

Jack rambles in conversation like he rambles in his motor home. Talking with him is an amazing trip filled with unexpected turns and vistas. Here he reminisces about Woody and a young Dylan and shares a surprising interpretation of his friend Townes Van Zandt's sudden death on New Year's Day.

Goldmine: How do you describe your music?
"I try to do a lot of swimming and jump around a lot and be in good shape when I'm on stage. I do a long yodel--45 seconds--at the end of 'Muleskinner Blues', an old song I've sung literally without changing its style or modifying it in any way since I was first doing it with my old partner Derrol Adams in Topanga Canyon in 1954."

Goldmine: Has a lot of your music remained unchanged for over 40 years?
"I'm afraid so. I'd like to say I've been honing it, modifying it and improving it. Well, I think it's improved, but it's more accidental." "Once I met Rod Stewart and he invited me out to his gorgeous beach house in Malibu. We got a couple of guitars and a couple of beers and eh played me about 10 songs he'd memorized as a kid from my early records. I was bowled over and honored and embarrassed. It was also kind of funny, 'cause he was imitating me at an earlier age and he was copying all of my mistakes and all the dumb stuff. I actually think I sing some those songs better now than I did then."

Goldmine: So how did you get started in music?
"I ran away from home when I was 15 years old. Didn't want to grow up in the city. Brooklyn, New York, thousands of miles from the nearest cow. I had a big yen to go west and be a cowboy. Read a lot of cowboy books by Will James---he was my favorite author. Kids dream about things like travelling around the world in a sailboat. My original spark was travel 'cause Brooklyn was such a horrible place, though compared to what it's like now, back then it was like Pleasantville, Indiana."
"I joined a rodeo when I ran away from home the first time. Two dollars a day and I had to feed myself out of that. I was grooming horses and feeding bulls and livestock. I was with cowboys and to me it was pretty romantic, starting to live out that dream---so much so that for three months I forgot to write my parents and tell them I was alive, which is pretty inexplicable. Haven't been able to figure that one out. Big mystery. They sure were not happy about that 'cause they didn't know if I was dead or alive."
"But I was really into a whole other life. I heard a rodeo clown play guitar and sing songs. He'd charge 25 cents admission for all us grooms and cowboys. We were all happy to give him a quarter even though sometimes we didn't have much money. He sang great---sort of like Grandpa Jones. And that was my first real live cowboy playing a guitar. And it wasn't on the radio or in no movie. It was right there. I got home from that trip and I found an old guitar in a closet and I started playing on it. I was just 16 years old and I've been more or less strumming on one ever since."

Goldmine: So how did you first meet Woody Guthrie?
"One of the best guitar players ever, Tom Paley, taught me. He knew Woody and introduced us one day. I was fascinated by the way Woody sang without any fancy embellishments or histrionics like some of our pop singers. He was totally real and natural and telling it like it is, not putting in a lot of false grunts and groans for the ladies in the balcony."
"Woody was always very political. People assume that I must be too because I was with him and admired him so much and traveled with him and and listened to him rave. I picked up a lot of good things from him and one or two bad habits."

Goldmine: What were the bad habits?
"Ones that my wife left me for. You'll have to look in the divorce papers. I'm not divulging it. It's too unhappy, too private. She always blamed Woody for me being like I was. She said, 'You should never have hung out with that old bum' ."

Goldmine: What was he like as a person?
"Cantankerous. He liked to sound off about things in a very wise manner. It was wonderful to listen to him 'cause he had a great kind of dry sarcasm very much like Will Rogers, who was also from Oklahoma. I was very fond of Woody. A lot of people who have been interviewed about him bring out the quirks because he was odd. He was different, all right."
"Woody was a pretty weird guy with way too much hair. He had this big beautiful mess of curly hair shaped like an oval. He was sunburned. He looked like he'd spent his entire life out in the sun, riding on top of those old boxcars.
"He drank a lot and he often appeared drunk. I found out later that it wasn't from drinking. It was his Huntington's chorea that was wracking his brain. His nervous system was coming apart and it made him walk like was drunk, behave like a drunk. A lot of it was not from liquor. But he still had his faculties, his memory and his ability to tell stories and play guitar in 1951 and 52.
"I went to Europe for six years, and when I got back in November 1961, he could barely play guitar at all. The day after I returned, I went to visit him in the hospital in New Jersey and there I met Bob Dylan. I didn't know who he was. We got acquainted on the bus after we left Woody's hospital."

Goldmine: What was Dylan like then?
"Bob was a round-faced 19-year old fresh in from the Midwest. Couldn't even grow a beard then---just peach fuzz. Very, very full of himself and just beginning to write songs. He was still singing a lot of old hobo songs. Then as time went on, he sang less and less of the old folk songs and more and more of the new Dylan songs he'd just written. It was very exciting. Everyone around him was thrilled."
"I remember a party in Cambridge---I think at Geoff and Maria Muldaur's house---with Taj Mahal and the Charles River Valley Boys and Bob. There must have been 30 people in this one tiny bedroom. Bob was standing in the center of the room singing to the crowd. You couldn't hear him six feet away, there were so many people surrounding him. He was singing a brand new song, 'Who Killed Davey Moore?'. We were all hearing it for the first time."
"I was very proud because people used to treat me like he was somehow my offspring or something. He obviously copied my style quite heavily in the beginning. He copied a lot of other people too." "So did I. It's well known that I copied Woody. I don't anymore. I used to do a perfect imitation of him, but I'm out of practice."

Goldmine: So how do you feel about winning a Grammy last year after all those years of not r recording?
"It had been years since my last studio recording. I practically forgot that there was such a thing as studio recording so I was amazed and quite happy to have a Grammy for a record I did with very little work---three easy sessions in three nights in Minnesota."

Goldmine: Why had you gone so long without a studio album?
"I was totally disappointed with the recording business. I rarely got paid. Vanguard paid me very tiny bits which I doubt were the correct amounts, but they seem to be honest compared to some companies. Whenever I want to know if Fantasy owes me any money for my Prestige recordings they've reissued, I call a friend there and he usually coughs up some sort of small check for me. But Warner Brothers never paid me a penny for my two albums for them. Those two LPs have been rereleased on a single CD by Rounder without my permission. They don't have to have my permission. When you're as big and crooked as Warner Brothers, you don't have to get permission from anybody."

Goldmine: Do you object to Rounder putting out the CD?
"They did a pretty good job of eliminating some of the less valuable material and selecting only the best stuff. And they wrote some nice things about me in the liner notes, but that was to their advantage in getting the record to sell better. But they're not paying me either. I shouldn't even discuss it. They might want to assassinate me."

Goldmine: Rounder isn't big enough to assassinate people.
"Well, if they're in cahoots with Warner Brothers, they are."

Goldmine: Did either label tell you how your Warner Brothers albums wound up on Rounder?

Goldmine: Warner wanted to buy Iris DeMent's contract from Rounder. As part of the deal, Rounder got the rights to reissue assorted out-of-print albums Warner owns by you, Guy Clark, Rosie Flores, Paul Siebel and some others.
"They never told me that. Thanks. I had a lawyer contact Rounder to find out what kind of royalties they were planning to pay me, and they said they send the royalties back to Warner Brothers since Warner thinks that the records never earned back the recording costs. That's the reason they haven't paid me yet. I think that's a big lie. I've autographes millions of them."

Goldmine: That album's version of "912 Greens" is your best, I'd say. But why's it titled "912 Greens" instead of "912 Toulousse" for the house's address in New Orleans?
"Nobody quite gets the title of the song. It's obtuse. It's a subtle reference to another blues, Jelly Roll Morton's '219 Blues'."
"'912 Greens' is just about Guy Clark's favorite song. I called him up on New Year's Eve to wish him a happy new year and who should be there but Townes Van Zandt. Townes told me that they were just listening to an old record of '912 Greens'. He said how much he liked the song, and I was struck. Then a day later he died."
"I never appreciated how Townes was a friend of mine, kind of. He was a sensitive person. He also loved to gamble. I would never get into a gambling game with him. He was an expert card shark."
"The last time I saw him, we were both staying at a very nice hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter. He was teaching me how to play fiddle. We had quite an intense session in his hotel room. There was a bottle of vodka present which his manager would masterfully hide just when he thought it was the appropriate time. Then Townes would sober up a bit and the bottle would come back again. Toward the end of the day, I thought we could use a little cool relaxation so I got out my bathing suit and a pair of shorts and I loaned Townes the trunks."

Goldmine: Townes was much bigger than you. How could he fit into your trunks?
"He was very tall and very skinny. He was very, very shy about his physique 'cause he wasn't exactly a muscleman, just real tall and bony. And there was a lot of fashionable ladies around this swimming pool so Townes was feeling very shy about going into the pool, so I made up this idea, 'Make believe you're Ray Charles and I'm your manager. And we're going for a swim, Ray, OK?' Townes got right into character, closed his eyes and started groping around with his hands. I'm leading him around with a little entourage of a cameraman following us. We got to the edge of the pool and I said, 'OK, Ray, the step up here is just about six inches high. Got it, Ray. Now we're on the edge of the pool.' And much to my surprise, Townes gave me a big, powerful shove, and I flew through the air and landed with a big splash in the middle of the pool. Then he felt he was protected by this diversionary tactic---nobody was going to notice him---so he slithered into the pool while the water was still splashing. Once he was under water, he was perfectly relaxed because nobody could see him. We had a race of about 10 laps, which is a lot for me. I think he beat me. After that he got in the car and went back to Nashville. And I didn't see him anymore."

Goldmine: I wondered if something about his hip surgery the day before he died could have triggered his heart attack?
"That's exactly right. My father was a surgeon and he always used to tell me, 'When you operate on an alcoholic, he has to have a shot of liquor or he'll die from the shock of the operation.' They refused him alcohol at the hospital. That's probably what brought on his heart attack. I think it was a medically induced death, but I'm not here to point fingers. There's enough sad stories already in this one little interview."
"Let's get on a happier subject. I've got a new record coming out soon. Several labels are bidding on it. Roy Rogers produced it, and a number of people helped out."
"Bob Weir and I do 'Friend of the Devil'. There's Leadbelly's song, 'He Was a Friend of Mine'. I never had it in my repertoire, but Jerry Jeff Walker suggested singing it with me. Tom Waits wrote a song for the album. Arlo Guthrie, Peter Rowan and Rosalie Sorrels sing on it. One of my favorite tracks is Joe Ely's 'Me and Billy the Kid'. I can't sing it at all. I just do it like talking. Not like a talking blues, but like some old geezer talking. It strikes me as funny the way Joe tells that story. I've never really been fascinated by Billy the Kid, never understood why they made such a hero out of him."

Goldmine: May his coming from Brooklyn is part of his mystique.
"They make a big deal of me being from Brooklyn. I find it embarrassing. I wish I'd never confessed it to the first journalist who put it in print 'cause they think it's headline material like (in a circus barker's voice) 'See the fat lady. See the cowboy from Brooklyn.' I get tired of that Barnum & Bailey aspect of being a Brooklyn cowboy."

Goldmine: Your late dog/road manager Caesar plays a big part in your tall tales. What pets do you have now?
"I ride horses whenever I can. I rope. I ride cow ponies. I don't compete in rodeos or anything like that. Sometimes I feel maybe I'd have been happier as a truck driver. I love long-distance trucks. I've never seen a truck driver who looked as good as his truck. I like animals and I like trucks and I like boats. I like pickin' the guitar, and that's what buys the gasoline, and that's what keeps me moving. I'm Ramblin' Jack and I've been livin' up to that title."