Ramblin' Jack lassoed on film

by Gene Wyatt (25 August 2020, The Tennessean)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, by all standards, is entitled to full membership in anybody's pantheon of folk, country and western artists. His peers are artists of the caliber of Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

He is still performing today, 69 years old and not quite as confident of his voice as he once was but as enthusiastic as ever.

He is also the subject of an affectionate film documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which opens today in Nashville. The film was written and directed by Aiyana Elliott, Jack's daughter by his fourth wife, Martha. It was well received at Sundance Film Festival this year, earning a special jury prize for artistic achievement.

In an interview while he was in town for a showing of the movie at Nashville Film Festival earlier this summer, Ramblin' Jack said that at first he was more interested in the cowboy lifestyle than in folk music.

"I remember listening to the radio and enjoying jazz when I was very young, but that was about it. But from the time I went to my first rodeo at age 9, I knew what I had to do; I was heading west."

His background is most unlikely for a cowboy. Elliott Charles Adnopoz was born in 1931 in the Bronx area of New York City, the first son of a successful Jewish physician. The only horses he saw in early childhood were pulling milk wagons in the streets around his home.

"That first rodeo was in Madison Square Garden, and I remember it as if if were yesterday," he says. "Gene Autrey was the singer."

He went every year after that. "I was impressed, turned on almost romantically by the big hats and the spurs, the long-horned cattle, the casual way the cowboys rode. I began to read Will James' books, particularly Lone Cowboy, his autobiography. I read just about everything else on the West I could find.

"When I was 14, my parents sent me off to school in Connecticut where I met Ben Churchill, an 'older man' of 19 who was a fellow student. Ben had lived a lot: He had a face like a Saint Bernard, smoked a pipe, knew all about Jack London and had hitched rides on freight trains all over the country. He became my model.

"When I was 15, I ran away from home and joined Colonel Jim Eskew's Ranch Rodeo, caring for horses for $2 a day. From that time on, I never thought of myself as anything but a cowboy."

Jack says he first heard Woody Guthrie on the radio about 1950 and was immediately impressed with his rugged, honest sound. "I went out to see him at his home in Coney Island, and we became fast friends. I even lived at his house for a time.

"I confess I copied everything about him: his style, his attitude, even his Oklahoma accent. Later on people would say I sounded more like Woody than Woody did himself. Of course, by that time Woody knew he was doomed by his disease (Huntington's chorea), and I think he may have been happy to have someone around to carry on the tradition."

After that, Jack played around in coffee shops and other likely venues in New York and gradually gained a reputation. In 1954, he moved to California and joined the people at Will Geer's Topanga Canyon herb farm, where many artists disturbed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy's carryings on had settled.

After that he toured America and Europe with his first wife, June Hammerstein. He was a big hit in Europe and has frequently been credited with influencing the careers of such artists as Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart.

"People often say Bob Dylan sounds like me, but the truth is that we both sound like Woody Guthrie," Jack says.

At the height of his career, Jack appeared several times on Johnny Cash's television show on ABC that originated at Ryman Auditorium. There are scenes from those shows in the movie.

He has another fond memory of Nashville. "Not long after Johnny did his Nashville Skyline album with Dylan, I came down and did my own record, Bull Durham Sacks and Railroad Tracks, with the same producer, Bob Johnston. There were even some of the same backup people: Kenny Buttrey and Norbert Putnam among them.

"I remember it particularly because by daughter the movie director was only two months old at the time, and we brought her with us."


Copyright 2000 The Tennessean A Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper