Ramblin' Man

By Lew Herman (09 Oct. 1999, Creative Loafing Online: Charlotte)

Grizzled and guitar toting folk icon Ramblin' Jack Elliott in his latest incarnation is part Willie Nelson, part Johnny Cash, and part Woody Guthrie, but still 100% original. Elliott's pure Americana, though not AAA radio — though you never know, they might even be playing some Ramblin' Jack cuts too. New listeners might be aware of Jack as he won a Grammy (Best traditional Folk Album) several years back for South Coast. Though a Grammy can be a kiss of death for most performers, in Jack's case it garnered him some well-deserved attention and acclaim. He even received another nomination for next release Friends of Mine.

We had a phone conversation a few weeks back, but in reality it was more of a one-way stream of consciousness coming from Jack. That's the way it is with Elliott — in a performance, if he's not real pleased, you'll end up getting a straight set of songs, nothing more. Which in itself isn't half bad, but if he's feeling good, you might instead get a forty-minute lecture complete with endearing tales, jokes and some impromptu musicianship. Jack is perhaps America's greatest link connecting the American folk roots past of the 1930s and bringing it all back home in the 90s. Jack's lived through every folk, rock and pop era, then gone his own defiantly non-commercial way and each time ended up with his own characteristic blend of pure, unadulterated folk. "Yeah, I feel like I'm a link; nothing wrong with that. I'm proud to be fitting into history," Elliott says.

I had a few phone chats with Jack and his companion Jan, as the couple made their way across Southern California in their new 1983 American car. "Bought it from a 90 year old widow. She never drove it anywhere," explained Jack. It's a fine car, but I'd rather be driving a rig." And there he goes, off talking about rigs he's either driven or ridden in, where he's been and what he did between rides. Disarmingly pleasant, gracious and warmhearted, he'll gladly talk your socks off. "I tend to digress," he explains. Which is what he often does when he's having a good time at a performance. Indeed, he's got some tales and stories to tell.

And it has been a long ride for Elliott. Ramblin' Jack is a true son of the American highway. An inheritor of the romantic lure of the road, Jack's been everywhere. In the great American road tradition of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack couldn't have picked a truer name for himself. The last of the Brooklyn cowboys, Ramblin' Jack had a number of people fooled as he created his own cowboy persona. In reality, he was born Elliott Adnapoz into a middle class family who wanted little Elliott to become a doctor or a humanitarian. Ultimately, he did become a humanitarian of sorts, but definitely went about it in his own way. At the ripe age of fifteen he ran away from home and joined a traveling rodeo. "I traveled by steam train to Washington, DC, where I lived in a tent," Elliott explains. "There was a clown in the rodeo that sang hillbilly songs. That's what I first figured I would learn to play." Putting this in some historical perspective, Jack says he "started playing guitar in 1947."

Jack's lived through every folk, rock and pop era, then gone his own defiantly non-commercial way and each time ended up with his own characteristic blend of pure, unadulterated folk.

For a long time Ramblin' Jack Elliott was known as the Woody Guthrie guy. He sang Woody Guthrie tunes, traveled like Woody, and sounded like Woody. "Oh yeah," Jack recalls, "He's a big influence on me. I fondly remember him as a great character and a fine writer." As a matter of fact, Jack attached himself to Woody and his household back in 1951 and became the guest that wouldn't leave. The two played together constantly, and Ramblin' Jack learned a great many things. "We played a lot of guitar together," he recalls. They lived and traveled together so much so that Jack almost became Woody, whether he was playing the guitar, singing, choosing songs, even things such as how he walked and talked.

In fact Jack eventually grew beyond being another Woody and has long been a magnificent interpreter of several generations of American music. On his newest CD, The Long Ride, there's one obligatory Guthrie tune but also material written by other kindred spirits like Tom Waits, Ernest Tubb and Bob Dylan. Jack even does a cover of the old Rolling Stones song "Connection". Accompanying musicians include ex-Blaster Dave Alvin, Dave Van Ronk and Maria Muldaur. Jack explains, "I hung out with Woody from 1951 through '54 before he went into the hospital. In 1961 I had been visiting Woody (in the hospital) and there was this kid there named Bob Dylan. As Jack recalls, "Woody knew who was with him in the room, but he couldn't really communicate. By the time Bobby (Dylan) showed up he (Woody) was pretty far gone. I was lucky enough (in the '50s) that Woody could reminisce with me and talk about shipping out in the Merchant Marine, with boats being torpedoed and everything. It pains me that I never thought of recording him or our conversations."

Ramblin' Jack warms up when talking about Beat writer Jack Kerouac. "I was living with an ex-girlfriend of Jack's, though she would never have admitted to that — she said they were friends — when Jack came over with a manuscript he had written. We were living over on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. It took him three days and nights to read that damned manuscript." Asked what he thought of it then, Elliott said unhesitatingly, "I loved it! I'd already been hitchhiking and traveling all over, so I was the perfect audience. I liked the parts about Mexico City the best. It was 1953 when he read it to me, and it was 1956 when it was finally published. I was heading to Switzerland on a motor scooter (from Italy) when I stopped at a restaurant. There was an Italian newspaper on a table with a picture of Jack on the front page. I let out a big yell. That's my friend Jack Kerouac, I shouted! I knew this was big if he was on the front page over there.

"When I got to Paris, Allen Ginsberg was there. There was a reading at the Mistral bookstore, in Paris. Allen told me to read excerpts from On The Road and Woody Guthrie. I brought along my guitar, did some songs. Gregory Corso was there too."

Ramblin' Jack had plenty of other adventures. He was also one of the first American buskers in England. Once he gave an impromptu street performance for some school kids. Legend has it that one of those kids was Mick Jagger, who promptly went home and bought a guitar the next day. "That's what he told me when I first met him," says Jack. Ramblin' Jack's ridden out lots of waves both culturally and musically, but always completely ignored the commercial pop marketplace. In the fifties he hung with not only the Beats — Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlingetti — but also with the Carter Family (Maybelle and A.P.), Jesse Fuller and even actor James Dean. As the folk boom and the 60s progressed Elliott greatly influenced both Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Artists ranging from the Grateful Dead, The Band, even Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Elton John, all acknowledged Ramblin' Jack's influence. He was even on Arlo Guthrie's recording of Alice's Restaurant. The 70s brought out Bob Dylan's greatest tour, the "Rolling Thunder Revue," featuring a supporting cast including Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, T-Bone Burnette, Robbie Robertson, and of course, Jack. On the tour he even had people tuning his guitars for him.

But that couldn't last. As Ramblin' Jack once said, "It isn't always easy being known as an inspiration to the rich and famous when you're neither yourself."

Today, Jack lives about fifty miles north of San Francisco, close to the ocean. He continues: "I just had a two month vacation, which was great. I have a little 12-foot boat. It always needs sanding, painting; it always needs some work." Born in 1931, Ramblin' Jack seems to be finally getting tired of the eternal road. "Half my time I spend on the damn road. I'm awful damn tired of it. I'd love to retire. I'd work on my boat all the time. Takes a lot of work, you know, maintaining a boat."

What happens next for Jack? "I just want to keep on keeping on," he says. I don't have any special plan for starting my own record company or my own motion picture company. But I am thinking about writing a book."

If there's ever a book, it ought to become a standard text on life in America in the 20th century — there would be a cast of thousands, and unlike most texts this book would read like a novel, with each tale more fun, more exuberant than the next.

Copyright :1999 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.