A daughter knows best
Making the film about Ramblin' Jack Elliott allowed Aiyana Elliott to learn more about her father

By Loren King (20 Aug. 2000, The Boston Globe)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, protege of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Bob Dylan, is a tough guy to get to know. He never stays in one place for long, traveling the country singing the Dust Bowl ballads, cowboy songs, and folk standards that have earned him a place in American music lore. Now 69, Ramblin' Jack still lives gig to gig, remembered fondly by his colleagues as much for his idiosyncratic, self-effacing style and imaginative storytelling as for his whiskey rasp of a singing voice and preeminent guitar picking.

Aiyana Elliott wanted to make a documentary about this Ramblin' Jack Elliott. She ended up with a film about her father.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," which opens Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema, is a chronicle of how a doctor's son from Brooklyn named Elliott Adnopoz reinvented himself as an all-American cowboy, joining a rodeo at 16 and teaching himself to play guitar by listening to Woody Guthrie on the radio. The documentary offers home movies and archival footage of Elliott and Guthrie, and Elliott's appearances in the 1950s and '60s at Greenwich Village folk clubs, where he performed and partied with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and an unknown kid named Bob Dylan. There are colorful interviews with Elliott, his Aunt Eleanor, 96, (an occasional guest on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show"), and members of Guthrie's family with whom Jack Elliott lived for several years. Musician pals such as Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, and Kris Kristofferson welcomed Aiyana Elliott's inquiries, even sharing some not-so-flattering stories about their own wild antics - and her father's.

"The deep love and respect they all have for Jack made my job easier. They really wanted to be part of this," Aiyana Elliott says.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" pays homage to Elliott's music with performances such as "Take Me Home," which he sings with Johnny Cash; "Roll on Buddy," performed with old friend and master of the five-string banjo, Derroll Adams; and Elliott's renditions of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" and Guthrie's gritty "1913 Massacre." Along with this footage is a contemporary portrait of a man whose life spent on the road made him a virtual stranger to his daughter, now 30, which adds another layer to the film.

"The film started out as an objective documentary about my Dad. His story is fascinating," says Aiyana Elliott who studied film at New York University. "But the material kept leading us in a more personal direction. Our editors [David Baum and Susan Littenberg] finally said, `This isn't just about Jack; it's about you too."'

She concedes that the father-daughter conflict was difficult for her. With varying degrees of success, she tries on camera to get her usually talkative Dad (his winding stories, like jazz riffs, gave him the nickname "Ramblin") to open up about his first marriage to Aiyana's mother, Martha, and their early years as a family in Southern California.

"I think in the end it is what makes the film resonate emotionally, and have appeal beyond folk music fans," she says.

Jack Elliott also would have preferred that his daughter's film remained a tribute and not a documentary that peeks behind the music. On the phone from a motel room in Boulder, Colo., he says, with his characteristic laid-back manner and raspy drawl, that longtime folkie and filmmaker Bobby Neuwirth was "appalled" that out of all the great footage he supplied, Aiyana used the "worst parts" of an interview Neuwirth once filmed with Elliott sitting in a bathtub and doing his trademark rambling for 30 minutes nonstop. Elliott also thinks the film's footage of young Bob Dylan "isn't that funny."

Dylan remains a sore subject for both father and daughter, although Jack claims Aiyana is "more sensitive" on this subject. As an up-and-coming folk singer, Dylan was Elliott's constant and eager companion in the clubs of the Village. "I thought, `OK, it's like I did with Woody, I'm just passing it on,"' says Jack. He recalls a trip the two made to Club 47 in Cambridge in 1962 to hear Joan Baez. "Bob was unknown then. We drove up in my '48 green Chevrolet that I bought for $75." But some felt that the young singer - like Elliott, a middle-class Jewish kid who had reinvented himself - was stealing from Elliott when he mimicked his guitar picking and singing onstage.

As Dylan's popularity rose, he abandoned Elliott, although he convinced him to be part of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976. Dylan refused to be interviewed for "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," but did allow Aiyana to use clips from "Renaldo and Clara," the disastrous 1978 film he made about the Rolling Thunder tour.

"He's unapproachable and just plain weird," says Elliott of his former pupil. "He talked to me on Rolling Thunder, that moment in the truck that you see in the film. There were a few moments like that, which is a miracle. Bob traditionally wants to forget and not get maudlin and cling to the past. I admire his talent. I wish I had his money and that I could write like him. But I don't envy his loneliness."

Aiyana Elliott was far more successful getting personal reminiscences and anecdotes from her father's surrogate family, the Guthries, who welcomed her as part of the clan. "I grew up around folk singers on the road, but I was on the West Coast, so I never knew Nora and Arlo," she says. "And I never would have gotten to know them, or any of my Dad's contemporaries, if not for the film."

"It's great to claim my heritage and I feel lucky to have been embraced by the Guthries. They cherish Jack as a link to their dad, who was taken from them prematurely. They see it as a blessing that Jack was there to preserve Woody's memory."

Of his mentor and friend, Elliott says simply, "Woody Guthrie's are still my favorite songs. I do 'em when they request 'em and when they don't."

Even after finishing "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," Aiyana Elliott expected her father to remain an enigma. But now that the two are on the road doing publicity tours for the film, "an amazing thing" has happened, she says. "Two days ago, he told me how much he appreciated me and how much he respects me. It was an amazing moment," she says. "He was giving me this thing I've always wanted, and it was the film that got us there."

This story ran on page M6 of the Boston Globe on 8/20/2000. Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.