By Michael Hill (10 Aug. 2000, VH1)
President Clinton calls him "an American treasure." Musicians and critics label him a legend. But after you see the new film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, the life story of folk singer/cowboy poet/adventurer Ramblin' Jack Elliott, you may describe him as one ornery, but very special, character. Writer/director Aiyana Elliott, whose touching documentary had its packed premiere in New York last night, August 9, simply calls him "Dad" when she can find him, that is.
The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack recounts Jack Elliott's arduous, sometimes-painful odyssey across America, across the years and across several generations of folk music. It juxtaposes his story with Aiyana's attempts to understand and connect with an affectionate but ever-elusive father.
The premiere, at a cavernous new movie palace on 42nd Street, was filled with friends, family, fellow musicians, and exwives. And Ramblin' Jack himself, accompanied by his fifth spouse, Janice Windsor Currie (better known as "Ramblin' Jan"), had stepped off the road just long enough to play a few tunes for the crowd. His visit to New York wasn't going to be long, though; the indefatigable 69-year-old troubadour was heading out to a gig in Boulder, Colo., over the weekend.
Jack Elliott wasn't called Ramblin' just because of his travels he also really likes to talk. And Aiyana has inherited that trait. At the premiere, both father and daughter commandeered the mike for extended thank you's and reminiscences, turning the rooftop postscreening fete into a shambolic house party.
"In telling my dad's story," Aiyana Elliott explained, "a hundred other stories began to unfold, about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and the whole evolution of folk music in America but also about my childhood and the kind of experiences I think a lot of people of my generation had growing up in the 1970s, the children of parents who were trying to escape their roots so that The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack is his story, but it's also my attempt to penetrate the elusive ramblings of my father."
Ramblin' Jack still displayed the gruff and mischievous charm that won him the hearts of countless women along the road, but he wasn't going to indulge the adoring crowd and just play nicely. He could barely bring himself to finish a single folk/blues number; the sound mix was bothering him, along with the smoke from too many cigarettes and the outdoor setup itself.
So he brought up fellow Greenwich Village vet Dave Van Ronk on stage to help him with an amusing tune about cars, full of growled sound effects. Ever the pragmatic road warrior, Elliott suggested that everyone come to his paying gig the following night at the Bottom Line. Then he handed the mike over to the equally legendary Odetta, who still possesses a deeply stirring voice, and the eternally youthful '60sera singer/songwriter Eric Anderson.
Aiyana Elliott's documentary was first hailed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it took the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement. But it's fitting that the official premiere was held in New York because that's where Ramblin' Jack was raised, well before his ramblings began.
Back then he was Elliott Charles Adnopoz, the son of a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn. Like a lot of young boys in the '40s, whose imaginations were fueled by books and movie westerns, he wanted to be a cowboy; unlike most of them, he ran away from home at age 14 and actually turned himself into one, joining a rodeo as a groom and learning to play guitar in his off hours from a rodeo clown. When he returned to New York, Elliott Adnopoz whom his rodeo pals called Pancho had become Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack is the story of a pivotal, yet largely ignored, figure in American folk and pop music. As Arlo Guthrie put it, "There would be no Bob Dylan without Ramblin' Jack." Elliott not only admired and emulated Arlo's dad, Woody Guthrie, he actually moved in with the Guthrie family in New York in the early '50s, absorbing the songs and the guitarplaying style of America's most famous folkie.
A decade later, with Guthrie terminally ill, Elliott passed on the lessons his generous mentor had taught him to aspiring young artists in the Greenwich Village folk scene like Dylan, who acknowledged Elliott's influence in his earliest performances by billing himself as "The Son of Jack Elliott."
Elliott's inspiration may have shaped many rising young stars of the early '60s folk scene, but he never enjoyed the same sort of acclaim or success as Dylan and his contemporaries, who crossed over to rock stardom. He practically had to barge his way into an all-star posthumous tribute to Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall and proceeded to steal the show from the marquee names with his heartfelt interpretation of the master's work.
Elliott rejected the stability of home and a commercial career, though both were within his reach. He preferred to carry on in the Guthrie tradition as a musical vagabond, eager to uncover the next song or story from America's less-traveled byways. As one old friend, Jerry Kay, says in the film, "He wasn't going on to the next gig, he was going on to the next adventure."
"Other people talked about it," Arlo Guthrie later remarked. "But Jack lived it."
Ramblin' Jack has enjoyed his share of graciously accepted accolades in recent years. South Coast, his first recording in 20 years, won the Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy in 1996. President Clinton bestowed upon Elliott the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1998. We had come to pay him homage, too, but Ramblin' Jack was having none of it. He was just hanging out with old friends, as he had been doing for the last 50 years, and we simply were welcome to join him.
In the end, the honor was all ours.