Jack is back — ready and ramblin'

Special to the Journal
by Peter North (7 August 2020, Edmonton Journal)

Jack Elliott doesn't have Ramblin' before his name because he goes on lengthy strolls around his northern California property every day.

No siree, Elliott came by the tag because once he starts talkin' he's off to the races.

Interviewers have to love it. You want a newspaper article and you come away with a couple of chapters for a book.

Ramblin' Jack is finally comin' back to our Folk Festival after an absence since the days when Holger Petersen was handling the artistic lineup and off the top the man who is a bona fide folk music pioneer and legend talked about his previous experience at the event.

"It was a wonderful time as I recall. Ian Tyson was there, so was Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark," says Elliott, a man who influenced those artists and many others from the generation of singer/songwriters who grew up listening to him, Odetta, Lightnin' Hopkins and Rev. Gary Davis when the first urban resurgence in folk music hit in the early sixties.

For those who aren't familiar with the man, Elliott, a young man of Jewish background from Brooklyn, toured about the U.S. in the fifties with the king of the folk troubadours, Woody Guthrie.

After Guthrie's career and life were cut short by Huntington's chorea, Elliott toured Europe with fellow folk stars like Ewan McColl. He returned to touring and recording in the U.S. in '61 and he passed on his influences to the likes of Bob Dylan. He is, for good reason, considered to be one of the fathers of contemporary folk music.

His new disc Friends of Mine on the Hightone label is confirmation that Ramblin' Jack is to this day adored by some of the finest singer/songwriters in America.

The album of duets finds the man paired with Peter Rowan, Tom Waits, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead.

On the disc Ramblin' Jack is also in the company of two other performers who will be appearing at the Edmonton Folk Festival this weekend, Emmylou Harris and Arlo Guthrie.

"The idea for the album came out of my being in a movie being made about the Barrow Gang, that being the gang of Bonnie and Clyde. Roy Rogers, the musician, and I were cast as hobos and there's some scenes where we're sitting in a boxcar playing guitars. There would be some long waits between takes and we'd just keep on jamming. After a few days of this Roy suggested he could help me make a new album and find a label," said Elliott of the door opening for a new opportunity before he continued.

"Heck I couldn't say no to that," laughed the folk legend, who just turned 67 this week.

Rogers proved to be the perfect catalyst to get Elliott back into the studio. The slide guitarist and solo artist in his own right was the man responsible for re-igniting John Lee Hooker's career nine years ago when he produced The Healer, the first of a string of albums for that famous bluesman.

Material on the album finds Elliott singing Me and Billy The Kid (with Rowan), Louise (with Waits), Dark As A Dungeon (with Clark), Friend of the Devil (with Weir) and Riding Down To the Canyon (with Guthrie) plus a couple on his own.

"This was the first time Arlo and I have ever recorded together after all these years," said Elliott of the song of his late pal and mentor Woody Guthrie.

"Arlo used to claim that it was me who taught him how to play the guitar. I'm really lookin' forward to seeing him at your festival," added Elliott, who will join Guthrie, BIlly Bragg and Roy Forbes for a workshop titled Influences on Stage 3 at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Elliott then went on to talk about the wonderful take of the Grateful Dead staple Friend of the Devil.

"Bobby (Weir) was the one who turned me onto the song. Twenty years ago he handed me a copy of it and said 'Learn this song Jack.' I did and even though I've been doing it since then I've never been completely satisfied with my version. I like this one though.

"You know I didn't realize that Jerry Garcia sang it originally and played the lead guitar part. Bobby made up a new lead part for this version," stated the man who was an onstage guest of The Dead on a few occasions during their heyday.

Then there's the other Bobby that Ramblin' Jack Elliott has been closely associated with over the years. Bob Dylan.

A tune titled Bleeker Street Blues closes Friends of Mine. It's a Ramblin' Jack original addressed to Dylan that was written when Dylan was hospitalized a year ago and came close to dying.

The song chronicles their times together in the '60s when Dylan enlisted Elliott, Roger McGuin, T Bone Burnett and Joan Baez into the Rolling Thunder Revue. The song is also a plea for Dylan to stick around as it's not his time to join Jerry Garcia, Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt.

"You know I had writer's cramp for 40 years but that song rolled out of me. I was sort of embarrassed about it at first but people really like it and understand that it's heartfelt."

So has Ramblin' Jack heard from Dylan since the song was released or since he came out of the hospital and hit the road again?

"Dylan's always been weird. No I haven't heard from, not that I'm surprised. I guess he only speaks to God and the nation these days."

So ends only a slice of what one of the true treasures of American culture had to say on a summer afternoon. A man who continues to speak and sing to whomever's willing to listen.

Edmonton Journal