By Tristram Lozaw (20 July 2020, The
It ain't always easy being Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Especially when most people
see you as someone else.
Ramblin' Jack has long been considered the finest living interpreter of the songs, the Okie drawl, and the front-porch charisma of 20th-century folk icon Woody Guthrie. In fact, for decades he has borne the mantle of "sounding more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie." And those for whom he brought alive the songs of America's dusty roads, rails, hills, and prairies -- Johnny Cash, Odetta, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, and Guy Clark among them -- seem to agree. Even the man himself thought so before his death, in 1967; and his son Arlo learned guitar not from his father but from Elliott. Then there's Bob Dylan, who, despite his Guthrie-isms, played his first gig billed as the Son of Jack Elliott and was criticized early on for sounding too much like Elliott, not Guthrie.
You're forgiven if none of this rings a bell. Ramblin' Jack has spent most of his career avoiding a career in the recording industry. And he has no personal songbook; he notes that he has "only written four songs in four decades." Ramblin' Jack's emulation of Guthrie is his calling card, but his talents as a mimic don't stop there. "He's everybody he's ever met," says Arlo Guthrie in liner notes reprinted on Me & Bobby McGee (a 1995 Rounder release that combined Elliott's 1960s albums for Warner Bros., the influential Bull Durham Sacks and Railroad Tracks and Young Brigham). And Elliott has met a lot of people.
He grew up on a "45,000-acre ranch in the middle of Flatbush," i.e., Brooklyn, where the Grand Ole Opry, Merle Travis, Reverend Gary Davis, and the Carter Family buzzed from his family's radio. At 14, Elliott Charles Adnopoz became "Buck Elliott" and joined a traveling rodeo, hoping to bury his roots as the son of a Jewish New York doctor. "It ain't where you're from that's important," his rodeo bosses told him. "It's where you're going." Elliott adopted the creed. He cultivated his penchant for "rambling" -- both drifting across the landscape and talking non-stop -- while hitching rides with truckers. "Truckers would go longer distances and were generally safer than taking rides with cars," he recalls over the phone. "That's when I first got into swapping life stories. I still like words more than the music. I like songs that sound like real people speak, a zen meaning that catches your imagination."
Rodeo cowboys encouraged Jack to learn guitar, and he developed a quicksilver flatpicking style by copying the technique of players like rodeo clown Brahma Rogers -- "We'd pay him a quarter to serenade us rodeo hands." Elliott picked up more licks touring with Tom Paley, who introduced him to Woody Guthrie. In 1951, Ramblin' Jack went to visit Guthrie and stayed for a year and a half, emerging as Woody's doppelgänger. Elliott busked his way across the rural South and West and later Europe, scavenging more folk blues and ballads and recording for the Topic, Prestige, and Vanguard labels. Heralded as the voice of the American folk scene, Jack expected his two Warner albums to be his US breakthrough, but though they received critical acclaim, they were commercial flops. A bitter Elliott -- "Warners never paid me a dime in royalties" -- reacted by dropping out and becoming a hard-traveling, hand-to-mouth Pecos Bill of the folk underground.
Now 66 and living near San Francisco in "Murine County -- I call it that because it's easy on the eyes," Ramblin' Jack has released more records in the last five years than in the previous 25. He won a Grammy for 1995's South Coast and recorded with an all-star cast for 1998's heralded Friends of Mine. He's also the subject of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, a Sundance award-winning documentary by his daughter Aiyana with an accompanying Vanguard soundtrack CD (the film will open August 25 at the Kendall Square). "I was tickled by all the old footage in there, but it showed me in full grump mode. I got tired of having the camera poked in my face for three years."
After a quarter-century during which he played to a cult following, the spotlight on Elliott might seem a bit bright right now -- he himself says, "I'm just glad to have a job and keep working." He may be a direct link, like St. Peter to Jesus, but he's not the only folkie to adopt Woody Guthrie as his personal musical savior. Take Billy Bragg's recent efforts. "The first time I saw him I didn't know who Billy Bragg was. But I immediately thought of Woody because of the way he stood, played, and sang."
Elliott has survived as a folk-heritage middle man. He's the archivist and interpreter, not the innovator. But don't underestimate the value of a keeper of the cowboy-troubadour folk flame and one of the few remaining links to beat poets and 1960s coffeehouse counterculture. His voice, or at least his channeling of Guthrie and dustbowl classics, can be heard all through modern-day song, from Nancy Griffith to Tom Waits. Jack copied. And hundreds, just like Bob Dylan, have copied Jack.
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