Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Lindsey Westbrook (September 1999, A Town South of Berkeley)

It's a Tuesday evening near Ramblin' Jack Elliott's home in rural Marin County. He's sitting at a table in Point Reyes' historic Station House, munching on a steak and recalling a moment from more than sixty years before -- a moment that would have lasting repercussions for American folk music, though American folk music didn't know it yet. It was the day that Elliott decided to become a cowboy.

"...so they turn out all the lights to make it dark in Madison Square Garden, and then here comes a herd of longhorn steers with very long horns -- eight, nine feet -- in the dark, and their horns are painted with luminous paint, and they are herded in by a group of about five cowgirls with big-brimmed hats, and their hats are painted with luminous paint. So all you can see are the hats and the horns. The girls are on horseback, of course, and they drive this herd of about sixteen longhorns around the arena in a slow trot. And as they trot, their horns rock like a boat. They make one complete circle and then they stop in the middle and bed them down."

"What does that mean?"

"They lay down on the ground like they're going to go to sleep. Anyway, it was a very spectacular, beautiful, exciting thing for me to see at the age of nine. And then the spotlight shines on the gate, and then there's this big hoop with paper stretched over the hoop, and all of a sudden SPLAT! comes Gene Autry on a horse, leaping through the hoop, breaking the paper and appearing in the arena. He rides around in a circle and takes his hat off and waves to the crowd. Then he stops in the middle -- it's still dark in the arena, with just the spotlight on Gene Autry -- and gets off his horse. There's a small group of musicians backing him up out in the dark, and a microphone comes down from the ceiling a hundred feet up and stops right there in front of Gene. And he sings, 'I'm back in the saddle again / Out where a friend is a friend / Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly jimson weed / I'm back in the saddle again / Ridin' the range once more / toting my old .44...' I decided right then I was going to be a cowboy. So here I am."

Ramblin' Jack doesn't just tell. He evokes. He can make an adventure from thirty years ago sound as vivid and full of detail as if it had happened yesterday. But he delivers the story with the kind of relish and polish that only comes with a few decades of re-telling. And re-telling. And re-telling. Now he's describing his first trip to San Francisco in 1951.

"...and I found this beautiful big model ship in the main lobby of the Maritime Museum. It was a five-masted full-rigged ship -- the only five-masted full-rigger ever built. 407 feet long, not counting the bowsprit, which was about 60 feet long. And a little bit of overhang...she probably was close to 500 feet in all. Masts 200 feet. So I was in love with that ship model. And the curator was standing right there, and he said, 'You like it?' and I said 'Oh, yeah.' 'How would you like to go on a work party?' 'Sure.' So the next day they picked me up and took me to Sausalito, and..."

The craft of storytelling is the essence of folk music, and Elliott learned it from the masters of the trade -- including the master, Woody Guthrie. They toured together from 1951 through '54, which made Jack the last artist to log a significant number of road miles with Woody before he entered the hospital permanently. It also made Elliott the key link between Guthrie and the folk artists of subsequent decades. And when I say "folk artists," I'm talking about everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan to Keith Richards, all of whom have cited Elliott as a major, formative influence on their own music.

Ramblin' Jack's gift for telling stories is certainly the most important reason for his far-reaching impact on American music as we know it. But there's also his almost-unbelievable circle of friends and acquaintances. Ask him to tell you about playing with the Velvet Underground in New York City. Or the one about Jack Kerouac reading him the not-yet-published manuscript for On the Road. Or the one about sitting in some London bus station and serenading a ten-year-old Mick Jagger, who immediately went out and bought his first guitar.

And then there's his incredibly prolific recording career. Elliott has officially made about 40 or 45 albums (that's almost one per year since he first ran away from home to join the rodeo at age 15), and there are at least 150 records out there, many of them pirated albums or compilations, that include him singing or playing. "We did do some good recordings here and there. Not all of them, of course, but some of those songs that I've recorded are great, and now as I hear them again for the first time in ten years, it shocks me to know that I ever was that good.

"I'm a great reader," says Jack. "I can pick up a newspaper and turn it into a grand opera in about eleven seconds. I've got a flair for sound effects. I like the sound of diesel trucks, cattle, sounds that horses make, birds squeaking, sailing ships with sails luffing. All those sound effects are part of the beauty of the world around me that I want to preserve for memory on a record. You know, put them into some kind of musical form. It's all music to me. The natural music of this planet."

And even though his status as an elder statesman is undisputed, Elliott continues to learn from a younger generation of folk artists. They include such well-established HighToners as Dave Alvin and Tom Russell, both of whom appear on Elliott's new album The Long Ride. One of the record's highlights is "Cup of Coffee," which Elliott wrote and originally recorded with Johnny Cash in 1969.

"Tom plays Johnny Cash's part in 'Cup of Coffee.' But we don't pretend that he's Johnny Cash; I just call him by his real name, Tom. And he calls his girlfriend Christine. He mentions her name throughout the whole song. And I keep accidentally calling her Flo, which was the Johnny Cash wife. You never meet her, because she's asleep in the bedroom, and we're in the kitchen, talking about trucks and getting drunk. And I keep referring to Flo, and Tom keeps saying 'Christine!' And I say, 'Oh yeah. Christine.' It's sort of a comedy.

"It wasn't rehearsed. We just got in a loose sort of mood and we did the whole thing in one take, which I'm very proud of, because it's so hard to get something like that when it's so complicated, with so many of these little subtle jokes comin' through, and it all was happening at a high rate of speed. And we were just on, buddy, like a couple of professional stand-up comics. So that was a really happy and fun moment of creativity happening in the recording studio."

"Hey Jack, tell me about meeting James Dean." Now this, I'm thinking, is a question I'll probably never get to ask anyone else.

"Well, my then-girlfriend (later my wife) was a friend of his. She was an actress. And she had just met him less than a year before I met her. She'd been riding around with him on his motorcycle from time to time. We were at Googie's, which was on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights Blvd., which pours down out of Laurel Canyon..."

Hightone Records & HMG Newsletter No.32