Jack of All Trades

By Catherine Felty (25 August 2020, If Magazine: Issue 18.3)

Even though the documentary THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK was honored with the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement at this year's Sundance Film Festival, there is nothing pretentious about musician Rambin' Jack Elliott and the subject of the film, which co-written, produced and directed by his daughter, Aiyana Elliott.

iF Magazine sat down with the two recently to discuss the doc RAMBLIN' JACK. Aiyana and Jack Elliott walk into a room on the 25th floor of an office building overlooking the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Jack pulls up a chair and begins talking without being asked questions, but before beginning his interview, he leans back in his chair and calls after his wife, who is headed for a visit to a nearby museum, "Bring me back some tar!"

A writer very quickly learns that one does not interview Jack but, instead, allows Jack to absorb the interview - as well as the room, the tape recorder and the interviewer. Talking with Jack is like sitting in a stream of water: it runs over your skin, leaving a little part of itself on you, before flowing away to another shore. He gives you little parts of himself, and you take them away, to remember t hem now and then.

Sitting in the office over-looking the tar pits, Jack fiddles with things lying about on the tabletop and politely asks for a cup of coffee. He points to a picture of Cameron Diaz on the front of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine.

"This girl looks a little like you, Aiyana," he says thoughtfully to his daughter. "Not as pretty, of course," he adds. "It's the way she's got her lips pursed and her eyes flappered."

"He's a regular Shakespeare, making up words as he goes," Aiyana says, commenting on her father's use of the word 'flappered.' "When Shakespeare was writing, things were a lot more malleable," she adds, grinning at her dad.

"But even CB slang has been changing over the years," Jack says thoughtfully. "People don't say 'Good buddy' anymore. That's passť. I haven't practiced talkin' it much. My dog was pretty good at it."

"You used to have a CB in the Land Rover," Aiyana recalls.

"Yeah, and my dog would throw in a word or two," he replies softly, then, to demonstrate, suddenly raises his voice several decibels. "Like I'd say, 'Yeah, that looks like a hellava darn wreck down, didn't it?' And my dog would say, 'Woof'. And I'd say, '10-4 on that barkin' over by the kennel door, good buddy, come back, Channel Canine, woof!' Just like he was talkin'. Huskies talk. I don't mean words, but like Caesar would say, 'Awwowahowa.' Which would mean, 'Boy, I just went out there to take a leak, and I saw some horses go by and I saw three deer - Wow! Something like that." Jack smiles. "I don't know what he was saying, but he was a great talker."

The short story of two dogs that Jack once had - and what became of them -- can illustrate his entire rambling life that Aiyana has attempted to capture in THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK.

"I was given two cow dogs that were born on a ranch out in West Texas," he explains, shifting back to a soft voice. "World champion steer ropin' dogs - Australian cattle dogs. They'd never been in the house. They weren't housebroken. They just lived under a piece of plywood. And my friend that was travelin' with me, he was a cowboy, and he didn't lke the idea of taking them dogs with us in the motorhome. He knew they were gonna be piddlin' on the floor and messin' in the motorhome. He was right."

Jack figured he would break them of their bad habits but wasn't successful.

"You have to catch them in the act, and that's kinda hard when you're drivin'," he says.

So after three days of cleaning the carpets, the dogs were dropped off at a friend's house in Texas, telling his friend: "Can you keep these dogs for me for about a month? I'm going to the East Coast and I'll be back in about three weeks or a month and by that time they'll be housebroken."

"He said, 'Well, okay, Jack,' and I gave him about a hundred dollars for dog food," he says - and what follows is a familiar theme with Ramblin' Jack that his daughter documents in her film. "I got back, they still weren't - oh, I didn't get back. The gig fell through and I wasn't going to be going back through Texas. And I was thinkin' he had to give them away - one was named Willie and the other was named Casey."

THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK tells the story of Jack Elliott the musician (who began life as the son of a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn) who lived, traveled and sang with the legendary Woody Guthrie and passed along his mentoring, for a time, to singer Bob Dylan. But it also tells the story of a girl who grew up wondering when her dad was going to get home - and then stay home long enough for a visit.

On one of his ramblings through the country, Jack came upon the annual Elko, Nev., cowboy poetry gathering in a somewhat - what else? - round about way.

"I heard about it the very second year, when I was in Wyoming," he says. "There was some guy up there - a photographer, I think it was - who told me about it. The thing happens in the last week in January, so the next to the last week in January I had a gig in Pocatello, Idaho - world's largest humping yard west of Chicago. Thirty-eight tracks. Freight yard."

At his gig, he struck up a conversation with the man taking tickets at the door.

"I said, 'What do you do?' and he says, 'I'm takin' tickets', and I said, 'No, I mean what's your daytime job?' and he says, 'Oh, I drive a freight train'," Jack recalls. "I said, 'You mean you're a locomotive engineer?' and he says, 'Yep.' I said, 'Well, whaddaya know, boy, that's great. I always wondered what it was like up there in those locomotives.' "

Next thing he knew, the man was asking if he'd like to come down to the freight yards.

"That's what I was hopin'!" he laughs. "He takes me down and showed me around the freight yard."

Then he said he met a woman who drove freight trains and played guitar. Through music, he became acquainted with her and discovered her "daytime job." She, too, invited him to the freight yard and before he knew it, he was not only riding in the engines, he was driving them.

"She said, 'Well, Jack, you sit right down there and put your hand on that lever,' " he says. "She was gonna teach me how to drive a locomotive - in three easy sentences. And the next thing you know, I was drivin' that locomotive and she was tellin' me stories."

After a couple of hours (remember the Elko poetry gathering?), Jack said he told the woman, "Goodbye, I gotta leave now.' She said, 'Where ya goin'?' I said 'I'm goin' to Elko, Nev.' She said, 'What's there?' I said, 'Cowboy poetry.' She said, 'What's that?' I said, 'A bunch of cowboys recitin' poetry.' She said, 'Can you wait 'til 1?' I said, 'What happens at 1?'"

Well, the woman replied that she got off work at 1 and that she'd go with him to the cowboy gathering.

"It wasn't any romance," Jack says. "She was just, you know, interested in - she just liked locomotives."

Jack said that since the woman had let him drive her locomotive, he let her drive his motorhome through the northern Nevada desert down to Elko.

"So we got to Elko, but she'd drank a whole six-pack of beer on the way down, so by the time we got there, she was about sick," he explains.

So, like most things in Jack's life, he arrived at what has become an important annual event for him by taking the long way.

Still working on repairing their relationship, Jack and Aiyana arrived in Los Angeles at the same time that the Democratic National Convention was getting underway. It was only by coincidence that they were in town at the same time, but Aiyana had got wind of a rumor.

"I hear they want you to go sing the Star Spangled Banner, " she says. "I think it would be great."

"Who wants me to?" Jack asks. "You want me to!"

"Yeah, I do," she laughs, and her wish would not be too far off, since President Bill Clinton awarded Jack the National Medal of Arts in 1998.

But the National Anthem reminds Jack of another story.

"I was once offered a job to sing the Star Spangled Banner at a car race," he says. "I practiced in my motorhome as we were driving down that way, below the Big Sur [California] area. All the way down I was rehearsing the Star Spangled Banner. There's only one key that anybody will comfortably sing that song. Very high notes. Unless you're Kate Smith or someone. Hard song. I was trying it in every key possible, and I worked on it for two days. I never would have thought of that in a million years. But never say 'no.' That's my motto. I was supposed to the Star Spangled Banner and say 'Gentlemen, start your engines.' So I figured out what I was gonna do. I was gonna say, 'Gentlemen, start your motors,' then start singing."

Jack is the kind of guy who's not going to say anything bad about anybody. Although Woody Guthrie's son, musician Arlo Guthrie, says that without Jack Elliott, there would have been no Bob Dylan. But Jack doesn't address that. Instead, his newly found fame as a "movie star" is related to his relationship (or lack of relationship) with Dylan.

"I always thought of myself as a movie star," pausing and then adding quietly. "One of the things that I've envied Bob Dylan for is that he got to hang out with Marlon Brando."

Dylan never contacts Jack, he says.

"I think he talks to God, but he never talks to me," Jack says matter-of-factly. But he remains close to the Guthrie family. "Arlo let me sleep in his own private bed in the back of his brand new bus a couple of weeks ago, when sleep was very much a premium. It was our very first gig on this trip. We'd just flown all the way in from California to New York. Did a photo shoot with Annie Leibowitz and caught a plane out the very next day. There in the middle of Pennsylvania we met with Arlo and did a gig at an outdoor area. It was raining and we didn't have a big crowd, but it was fun being with Arlo. I opened with him. He let me sleep in his bus."

Regarding new music and young "prepackaged" musicians and groups that are put together by recording labels or managers, Jack, a purist in music, doesn't complain. How about singers like Britney Spears?

"I don't even know who that is. I guess I don't think much of them, I don't listen to them. I wish to heck I did listen, but it's passing me by," he says. "I think there's a lot of talent out there that I'm not aware of because I got so disinterested in it. I don't stay glued to the radio like I did when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. I had an old, wore-out wicker chair and - this was just after Will Rogers was on the radio - I used to listen to programs like Tom Mix."

And he breaks into a version of Tom Mix's Ralston Shredded Wheat commercial, what he calls his early cowboy training, clapping his hands and singing loudly. Upon finishing the several verse-commercial, he grins broadly. For a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who learned to be cowboy from radio commercials, he's come a long way out West.