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
"It's draining my love of life; my vitality is being
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
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
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
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
better. But I'm not filled with the belief that I'm
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
he's still out there doing it is a testament to what he
does. If he's getting better bookings, that's great. He
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
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
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
happy that he's still out there doing it. I feel like
little bit out of touch with the free spirit he
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
"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
He does harbor some regret about not sticking to the
traditional path the music industry has laid out for
-- release an album, tour to promote, release another,
tour again. "I've been in the business," he says. "I'm
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
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.)