Ramblin' man
Film is tribute to musical legend, and a search to find elusive dad

By Sura Wood (1 Sept. 2000, The Mercury News)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the legendary flat-picking guitarist with the raspy voice and Western twang, is a prime illustration of the American penchant for re-inventing oneself. Born Elliott Adnopoz, the eldest son of a well-to-do doctor in Brooklyn, the would-be "cowboy everyman" ran away from home when he was 14, joined the rodeo and eventually metamorphosed into a romantic archetype -- roping cows, sailing ships, driving trucks, singing songs, always one step ahead of the sunset.

At 70, Elliott has achieved cult status particularly as an interpreter of American roots music in a career that now spans five decades. He often is cited as the link in the folk music hierarchy between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan -- and as the latter's mentor.

Jack Elliott has lived out the myth of the hard traveling man that infused the collective imagination of the '50s and '60s. But his abhorrence of commitment ultimately helped undermine his "professional" and his personal life.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" is a poignant documentary made by his 31-year-old daughter, Aiyana Elliott, an NYU film school grad. Combining archival footage, home movies, live club performances and interviews with fellow musicians as well as with Elliott's acquaintances and former wives, the film is not only a tribute to his musical legacy, but a daughter's voyage to find her elusive father.

In part, it is about the emotional toll taken on the ones Ramblin' Jack left behind. In the broadest sense, it's about the hidden costs for kids of those freewheeling parents, whose desire to pursue their own dreams took precedence over the needs of their children.

Elliott is a charming, amiable man who, after years of practice, is an expert at avoiding being pinned down -- and during the year and a half of shooting, he successfully thwarted his daughter's efforts to have an uninterrupted conversation with him about their relationship.

Her frustration is palpable. "He's quick to change the subject to some truck or boat or sailor he just met," she says. "That's the way he is -- he's captivated by the romantic side of life."

Indeed, while Elliott traded stability and financial reward for the lure of the open road, other musicians, more ambitious and focused than he -- notably his protege Dylan -- imitated (some say stole) his act and hit the big time.

The making of the movie provided an opportunity for rapprochement between father and daughter, who have been touring the country to promote it. However, in a joint interview in San Francisco recently, one sensed a collision of energies. Aiyana, slim and pretty, was clear and articulate where Jack was opaque and diffuse. She answered directly while he tended to deflect a question with a wry remark, or use it as a pretext to tell a story, which, more often than not, had little relevance to the subject under discussion. When he did that, his daughter intervened or coaxed him back on track.

(According to Kris Kristofferson, interviewed after a late night gig, it was not only a propensity for roaming that earned Elliott the ramblin' tag. "I never met anyone who was so enchanting on subjects I didn't give a damn about," Kristofferson recalls.)

Elliott turned laconic, though, when asked if he'd been reluctant to participate in a film made by his daughter. "I wasn't at first; I got reluctant later," he allowed. Probed further as to whether the venture has brought them closer, he merely nodded and smiled.

But speaking from her home in New York a week later, Aiyana said that she and her father finally had the conversation for which she had been yearning all her life.

"My dad started talking to me in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way, which is uncharacteristic of him," she said. "He was saying how he felt that the movie had given us a lot of time together and given us the chance to get to know each other better and how he'd come to respect me. It was remarkable. What's been amazing about the experience for us is that he's listened to me for the first time in my life. When we first watched the film (at Sundance), those two hours were the longest period I'd ever had his attention."

Elliott -- who married his fifth wife, Jan, last month and lives in Marshall -- has only marginally mellowed with age. Hobbled by a bad hip and suffering from a chronic allergic cough that causes him to speak just above a whisper, he's almost broke, living gig to gig, singing for his dinner.

"He was one of the best there was in the '60s and one of the big influences on me, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt and many others," says Paul Geremia, a blues singer/songwriter who has known Elliott since 1966. "I'm sure that Jack Elliott has had lots of opportunities to do things that would have made him money and he has decided not to do them for aesthetic reasons or because it offends his sensibilities or his idea of who he is."

"I've written only four songs in 40 years," he says. "I think I'm a good writer when I get down to it, but I only do it once every 10 years, when the spirit moves me. I guess it doesn't move me that much or I'm just real lazy. I've had a problem with laziness most of my life. I'm capable of wasting three or four days in a row without accomplishing a darn thing except maybe meditating. But when you meditate, you're not wasting time. You're traveling millions of miles through the cosmos . . ."

"I think that maybe he's exactly where he wants to be," says Aiyana. "Financially, his career has been a disaster and that's rough. I know he wishes he had something in the bank to fall back on. He can never stop or catch his breath and he's always trying to make the rent. But he didn't want the responsibility or limits that come with fame. So much of the thrill of this work has been about the side trips he took in between the gigs -- the people he would meet, the adventures he would have. Playing gigs enabled him to live this life and see a lot of great things."

However, Jack's vagabond existence, his high and low times traveling across the country, forced an unwanted inheritance of rootlessness on Aiyana, who was able to see her father only a few times a year when she was growing up. Her parents split when she was 4 years old and her mother, Martha, whose interest in indigenous cultures took them to exotic locations including the Philippines, now lives in Mexico where she is studying to become a shaman.

"I had some real adventures in my childhood on the road with my dad that I really cherish," says Aiyana. "The Rolling Thunder Revue (a tour in the '70s that reunited Elliott with Dylan and other veterans of the '60s folk boom) was very stimulating for me; and my mom was interested in Filipino faith healers. But, as a kid, my parents didn't always provide a lot of support for me and that was very hard. I had to grow up fast. I've had to be very responsible from a young age and I'm still that way. I have a hard time letting go of control and just enjoying myself. Rationally, I feel at peace with my parents and at peace with my past. But I think I'm still very angry."

"Americans have this idea that you should be able to do everything, that you should be able to be an artist and still have a family like Ozzie and Harriet," observes Geremia. "It just doesn't happen that way. You have to make sacrifices to do things. You can't spend your life following the dictates of the muse and still expect that you're going have a perfect life where you've lived up to all your responsibilities. Sometimes you can only be responsible to yourself and what you have to do, and people have to pay for that. Families pay for it; kids pay for it. Somebody has to pay for it."

2000 Mercury Center.