Pop Quiz — Q & A With Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Steven Stolder (24 September 2020, San Francisco Chronicle)

Just as Ramblin' Jack Elliott followed in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie when the folk music icon was making his last forays onto America's roadways, a young Bob Dylan later traced the tracks of Ramblin' Jack. The middleman in the great triumvirate of troubadours never quite gained the fame and acclaim of his tutor or his pupil, but Elliott has logged as many miles and sung as many songs as just about any balladeer. Born Elliott Adnopoz, he later dubbed himself Buck Elliott, then became Jack after he was misintroduced at a party. Now 64, the native New Yorker makes his home in Marin County, where he indulges his passions for sailing, music and the Wild West. He has a new album, "South Coast," on Red House Records and he continues to perform. Elliott headlines a benefit for the Center for Economic Conversion on October 2 at the Great American Music Hall.

Q: What is your strength as a folksinger?

A: Well, I never was into the politics of it, even though I feel very strongly about what (protest singers) are singing, and I think they're right. I just can't get into that sort of melodrama. Something about it I find in poor taste. The only way I can do it, and the way I've been doing it, is in a more plain Woody Guthrie thing, which is kind of like a man in the street. Will Rogers did that, too.

Q: What's your new album like?

A: You've got to come up with everything that once was from your life, and you need a lot of self-confidence to pull something good with just you in a room with a guy looking at the clock. "That sounded pretty good, Jack. I think we got a take there. You don't have to do it again. What else do you know?" I didn't even have a list of songs. I'd go, "Well, how about `Strawberry Roan'? Sure, that's a good one. I knew that." "Still know it?" "Yeah, I think I can try it." That's the way this album was made, and so many people have called me up and said, "How did you plan it? What a masterful job you've done of planning your album!" It wasn't planned at all.

Q: Do you have any idea how many miles you've rambled?

A: I would not be able to venture a guess. It would be fun to try to track it all down. Millions! I guess I've traveled as far as the average airline pilot has in his whole career, only for me it's partly by air and partly by truck.

Q: What's your favorite place?

A: My favorite place would be Cape Horn, or the moon. I'm a moon kind of guy.

Q: How about your least favorite place?

A: I'd say Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Paris. I used to love Paris in the old days, but when they took out the onion soup, they cut out the heart of Paris. It was only made in this one little area in Paris between the hours of midnight until 2 in the morning. You'd get this great onion soup at a place called Les Halles. It was a produce market covering approximately one square kilometer. But they tore it all down to build apartment houses. There's nobody left in France who can make French onion soup, and they certainly don't know how to make it in America. Wish I knew how to make it.

Q: When you hitchhiked, what was the secret to getting a ride?

A: After a while, I became frightened to hitchhike in cars at all, because it was dangerous. The people who were willing to give you a ride were either drunk or insane. And there were the occasional murders happening, although they were mostly committed by the hitchhikers. I would go to truck stops. They used to have signs on the trucks that said "No Riders," but it was up to the discretion of the individual driver. If he was tired or lonely, even a company driver would take a risk with a hitchhiker, especially one with a guitar. That helped a lot. That was my most-often-used trick. I loved riding in trucks because the drivers had interesting stories to tell and they'd leave you off where you could catch another ride. Whereas cars, they'll just let you off by their driveway. You don't know where you are.

Q: Do you ever pick up hitchhikers?

A: No. First of all, they all wear petiole; I don't like petiole. Secondly, I figure they've got a gun. They look scary to me. It's a whole different era. I used to be very readily able to feel that I could make friends with strangers in a bar or most places in America. But I was in love with America. Kind of like Jack Kerouac. I had a lot of feeling for Jack, too. I met Jack and he read me his whole manuscript to "On the Road." It took three days.

Q: He read it out loud to you?

A: Yeah, out loud. I loved every bit of it because it was me hitchhiking around. I never quite got that into drugs and wine and all that stuff, but I had a feel for what (the book's characters) were saying. It was the only thing that resembled Woody's "Bound for Glory." Later, (Kerouac) wrote some stuff about me in some of his books. He talks about me in two or three of his books.

Q: Did Senator Joe McCarthy's Red scare have an affect on you in the '50s?

A: None other than I thought he was pretty darn scary. I remember when Woody was still able to walk around, and I was sort of thinking that Woody would have liked to have been invited to get up before them.

Q: Why do you think he wasn't called before the House Un-American Activities Committee?

A: Well, he was already so impaired. As poor shape as he was in, I think he'd have still made a good showing. He was so brilliant with his own sarcastic humor. And he had a very mercurial nature that they couldn't have pinned down. Like Bob Dylan. Bob is a Gemini, so he gets it from birth, I guess. But Woody was a Cancer.

Q: What was your initial impression of Bob Dylan?

A: I thought he was kind of cute, actually. I thought he was OK. I hadn't seen anything quite like him before, and nobody else had either. The people in New York kind of looked askance at him because he was obviously — they thought more than I thought — imitating me. I thought he was imitating Woody. You don't see yourself the same way other people do. Maybe their vision was more correct than mine, but they used to get angry and insulted, and they thought I should get p— off. They were always poking me to try to get mad at him. They'd say, "He's stealing the wind right out of your sails," 'cause he'd get up and do a song like I'd do a song. He'd pick up on some mannerism of mine and he'd practice it right there in front of us all like he was in school. It offended their sense of honesty and goodness.

It didn't bother me at all. In fact, I defended him. I'd say "Hey, this is the first guy I've seen in New York that sings like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston."

Q: Into the '70s, you were involved in the Rolling Thunder Revue. Was that your idea?

A: I was present immediately after the idea was first suggested. It was mentioned to me within 15 minutes of the time that Bob Neuwirth said it to Bob Dylan. Bob Neuwirth was the one, I think, who put it in Bob Dylan's ear. He said, "Why don't we go on the road and get a bus and play a bunch of little towns. You and me and Jack and Joan Baez." I was, at that moment, in the adjoining room being paid by the club owner. This was the Other End, sometimes called the Bitter End.

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