Renewed Fame For Folk Interpreter Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Wes Orshoski (November 22, 2020, Billboard)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is feeling a little bit worn out. He's spent the past two weeks in and out of airports, hotel rooms, and taxicabs, traveling from gig to gig.

Yesterday he was in California; today he's in New York. Running on little sleep and bothered by an ailing hip and a pesky cough, Elliott says he's had just about enough of this routine.

"It's draining my love of life; my vitality is being sucked right out of me," he says. "I'm just thinking about dropping out. I'm thinking about retiring. I've been thinking about it real hard for this whole year, and a lot the last two weeks."

At 69, the man hailed as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan has picked one heck of a time to consider calling it quits. Since a 1996 Grammy win for best traditional folk record ("South Coast" on Red House Records), his career has undergone a resurgence that's seen Elliott honored with a National Medal Of Arts, an additional Grammy nomination, and a feature film profile by his daughter, Aiyana.

Largely due to the publicity generated by Aiyana's documentary, "The Ballad Of Ramblin' Jack," released earlier this year, Elliott has for the first time in decades begun selling out the 50-60 small rooms he plays annually. The newfound interest has earned him more money per gig and afforded him the freedom to choose which shows he actually plays -- a luxury he hasn't had since he first gained fame in the '50s and '60s, according to his booking agent, Keith Case.

While his career is healthier than it's been in years, Elliott himself isn't so fit anymore. In need of a hip replacement, the singer often uses a wheelchair in airports. Because of a bronchial condition, he asks audiences at his shows not to smoke. And he avoids playing certain songs because he can't hit their high notes anymore.

Though age has begun taking its toll, Elliott is still the charming performer he was 40 years ago. Tonight, he'll play to about 75 people who've filled almost every seat at the Bitter End in New York's Greenwich Village. He'll sing the tunes that have become his signature songs -- Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues," Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," and Dylan's "Don't Think Twice." But he'll spend most of the evening telling stories about his adventures traveling with his musical companions: the late banjo player Derroll Adams and Guthrie -- his mentor, friend, and biggest inspiration.

It's times like these, when Elliott's sitting before devoted admirers, that you wonder if he's serious about retirement. Playing live is what he does best. For Elliott, who has never had a manager and has written only a handful of songs in his career, the shows have paid the bills for the better part of 50 years. He's never really held any other job than wandering troubadour.

"It's like I'm on an uprise," he says. "I think it's getting better. But I'm not filled with the belief that I'm really a high-roller or that we're gonna win this rodeo. I just believe it when I see it ... I'm owing my agent almost as much money as I'm making. He pays for the airline tickets, and he takes it out of my money. Each time I play a bigger and better gig, I'm momentarily elated for a chance to pay our phone bill."

Considering Elliott's influence on folk, rock, and the fusion of both, it seems almost criminal that he's lived hand-to-mouth for so long, says Nashville-based Case, who also represents Alison Krauss, Jesse Winchester, and Elliott's friend and admirer Guy Clark.

Though he's released more than 20 albums, Elliott earns little to no royalties on most. Lot 47, the company that distributed "The Ballad Of Ramblin' Jack," paid Elliott a $5,000 consulting fee for the movie's soundtrack, released by Vanguard. That's the most he's ever been paid for an album, says Aiyana. "It's an outrageously hard business. It's impossible to make a living as a folk musician, particularly one as down-to-earth and authentic as my dad. He's just been kind of living gig-to-gig for a long time. Just the fact that he's still out there doing it is a testament to what he does. If he's getting better bookings, that's great. He needs them."

Aiyana's film, shown on 96 screens in art houses in 75 cities, serves as both a treat for devoted fans and a compelling introduction to Elliott for those unfamiliar with his background. It leads viewers through Elliott's early fascination with cowboy culture, rodeos, and the American West, which eventually inspired him to leave his Brooklyn, N.Y., home as a teenager to join a touring rodeo.

Elliott returned home after his parents posted a $500 reward for information on his whereabouts. There he became smitten with Guthrie's songwriting and guitar picking after hearing the singer on a local radio program. At age 19, Elliott met Guthrie and later became a fixture in the Guthrie household, a lifelong friend, and an eventual inspiration to young Arlo. Elliott would soon meet Adams, with whom he spent years traveling throughout Europe, playing in bars, on street corners, and in train stations.

During one such performance, in a train station in England, Elliott caught the eye of an adolescent Mick Jagger, who was watching from across the tracks. Some 20 years later, Jagger ran into Elliott in a hotel and explained that he bought his first guitar after seeing him that day.

When Elliott returned to America, he enjoyed his greatest success. The '60s Greenwich Village folk scene was in full bloom. During his time abroad, Elliott's reputation had grown legendary. Those in the local music scene, the film explains, gave the singer a hero's welcome. Fans clamored to get into his shows, which received rave reviews. A short time later, Elliott met Dylan while both were visiting a dying Guthrie in the hospital. Dylan and Elliott quickly became friends, performing and touring together.

"[Elliott] definitely was the link between Guthrie and what we're playing now," says singer/songwriter Joe Ely, whose "Me And Billy The Kid" Elliott covered on '98's "Friends Of Mine." "He was definitely that catalyst. Without him, there would be a vastly different music scene."

In 1998 President Clinton recognized Elliott for that influence by presenting him with a National Medal Of Arts, calling him an American treasure. The film shows Elliott standing with President Clinton and a fellow honoree, actor Gregory Peck.

Aiyana says part of the reason she made the film, which is to be released on video this spring, was to get her father more recognition and to make his life a little easier. "I've seen how difficult it is, and I'm just really happy that he's still out there doing it. I feel like we're a little bit out of touch with the free spirit he exemplifies."

Elliott spent much of July and August promoting "Ballad," doing between five and nine interviews per day. Elliott's appearance on CBS' "The Early Show" was probably his first television appearance since his 1969 performance on "The Johnny Cash Show," Case says.

"Prior to the [1996 Grammy win], he hadn't been in the press at all. I really don't think anybody was even thinking about him," Case says. "The movie certainly focused some light on him and created some interest that wasn't there previously. And I think the film really tends to remind people of the impact he had on folk music initially and his enormous impact on Bob Dylan, which has been ignored. It's basically a documentary about a guy who was not really that well-known. But you can't go see that movie and not be curious about seeing him in person."

Elliott, who is working on material for a new album with Danny O'Keefe and Dave Alvin, says he's thinking about writing his autobiography. In the meantime, fans may absorb "Best Of The Vanguard Years," released Oct. 31.

He does harbor some regret about not sticking to the traditional path the music industry has laid out for artists -- release an album, tour to promote, release another, tour again. "I've been in the business," he says. "I'm just not motivated. I could have been a millionaire 10 times over. I guess I'm not doing it right. And it doesn't just happen accidentally or automatically-you gotta have some sort of plan, and as you saw in the movie, in my life, there's never been a plan."

Elliott feels as though he should capitalize on all this new interest in him, but he's not really feeling up to it. "I think it would be fun to be rich for a change and not have to travel, but I'm getting tired of working. And in order to capitalize, it involves working. And I'm a lazy guy," he says, grinning.

(article thankfully found by steve langdon.)