A Daughter's Devotion Filmmaker Aiyana Elliott comes to terms with her wayward father in `The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack'

By James Sullivan (29 Aug. 2000, San Francisco Chronicle)

Aiyana Elliott says her father finds it easier to reveal himself to an audience than he does to his friends and family. Chronicle photo By Lea Suzuki.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the major link between the late Woody Guthrie and modern folk music, is learning to love the documentary his daughter, Aiyana Elliott, made about him.

``It's a great tribute to a life badly lived,'' he says. The line, delivered over lunch at a very un-Ramblin'- Jack-style San Francisco bistro, sounds like a catchphrase straight from the PR department. Not so, Elliott says with a bright smile.

``I never said it before. That's a scoop.''

``The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack,'' opening Friday at Bay Area theaters, won a special jury prize for artistic achievement at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's Aiyana Elliott's first feature-length project, having grown out of a half-hour short she made as a film student at New York University.

The movie works equally well on two levels. It's a warm portrait of a Brooklyn boy (born Elliott Adnopoz) who chased the myth of the American Wild West as if it were a prize calf wandering toward a steep bluff. It is also the culmination of Aiyana Elliott's lifelong frustration with her wayward dad, who was always ramblin' like that prize calf.

In the movie, Kris Kristofferson suggests with a hearty chuckle that his friend's nickname comes not from his love of the open road but from his prodigious gift of gab.

Aiyana Elliott says that gift isn't entirely a blessing.

``My dad has a habit of being very intimate with an audience, with strangers, in a way that's hard for him to be with people close to him,'' she says, wedged into a banquette with him over lunch.

Father and daughter share the same soft blue eyes. By turns, she dotes on him, gently steering him back onto the conversational track, and pooh-poohs him, wrinkling her lips when he grumbles about how uncomfortable he was shooting the movie's confrontational scenes.

Elliott, whose Grammy-winning 1995 comeback album ``South Coast'' was supposedly recorded for gas money back to his home north of San Francisco, has been belatedly recognized for his considerable contributions to American folk music. He received the National Medal of Arts in 1998, the same year he released an album of duets with admirers including Emmylou Harris, Bob Weir, Tom Waits and Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son.

Elliott, now 69, served his apprenticeship with the elder Guthrie in the early 1950s, when the great folksinger was slowly succumbing to Huntington's chorea. The two men would care for Guthrie's children, squeezing in jam sessions when they could.

``We'd practice guitar every morning,'' Elliott says. ``We entertained the kids mostly by taking them for car rides. Then Woody would get dizzy and take a nap for two or three hours.''

A decade after first meeting Guthrie, Elliott was the momentary toast of Greenwich Village. Bob Dylan's first official gig, at Gerde's Folk City, billed him as the ``Son of Jack Elliott.''

But Elliott's live act never translated into a successful recording career, and by the 1970s he was remembered mostly by die-hard acoustic-music fans. His peripatetic ways led to several marriages -- Aiyana is his only child, the daughter of his fourth wife, Martha Elliott -- and an infamous unreliability.

``I've never been a joiner,'' Elliott says with a shrug. ``Some of my first heroes were the Lone Cowboy and the Lone Sailor -- Will James and Joshua Slocumb.''

Carrying on where Guthrie left off gave his life a structure others might not see, Elliott says. ``People talk about my lack of organization, but there must have been some sort of organization in the cosmos to let this thing keep living.'' Aiyana says it was the loss of several lives that pushed her to make ``The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack.''

``The year I finished school, a lot of Jack's contemporaries started to drop. It was a terrible (time). Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt, John Denver -- all gone. And I thought, I probably should make this movie soon.''

Aiyana, who once answered a sixth-grade aptitude test by saying that all she wanted to do was watch movies, says she didn't get that from her father.

That's true, he agrees.

``I enjoy movies when I see them,'' Ramblin' Jack says, ``but I never went much. I still have not seen `Gone With the Wind.' ''

The first movie he ever saw, way back in Brooklyn? ``The Westerner,'' with Gary Cooper.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle Page C1