The tales of Ramblin' Jack
A new documentary tells the story of Ramblin' Jack Elliott

by Ed Symkus, CNC Senior Arts Writer (2000,

Who would've thought? One of the most difficult kinds of people to interview is a storyteller. Because one short question results in some very long answers. And although fans of American traditional music will always list Ramblin' Jack Elliott as a folk singer, as the man who was mentored by Woody Guthrie and who, in turn, mentored Bob Dylan; well, yeah, he's a darn good folk singer and a fine guitar picker. But it all comes down to the fact that he's really more of a great storyteller. Jack can sit there, either one on one in discussion or up on stage with a full house in front of him and just spin 'em, one after another, all (mostly) true stories about himself and his life in music and on the road.

One has to wonder whether he got his nickname because, until a few years ago he never lived in one home for very long, or because of the likelihood of his breaking into yet another talk fest at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. Jack's daughter, Aiyana, also has stories to tell, most of them about her hard-livin' dad, about how he was, indeed, always out on the road, hardly ever home to talk with her, to watch her grow up. When she was going to NYU film school a few years back, she did a short film on him, an assignment to profile somebody. After showing it around, she got a lot of encouragement and realized what an emotional experience it had been.

"I pulled together some little archival things I had found," she says. "I was cutting them together and found myself very moved when I was editing it. So I thought I should probably do a [feature] film on him at some point."

The resulting documentary, "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," shows and tells the rich history of the Brooklyn-born boy who, long ago, ran off to the rodeo, discovered cowboy music, met up with Woody Guthrie, and never looked back. But the film also focuses on the rocky father-daughter relationship. It shows Aiyana still trying to sit down and talk with her dad while following him around, camera crew in tow, on his endless concert and club circuit.

"I was a little bit alarmed by some scenes that were very graphic and frank," says Jack after first seeing it earlier this year at Sundance. "But all in all I was excited about it and amazed by some of the footage that Aiyana dug up from some of my dad's old home movies that I'd never seen of me when I was three years old, trying to run like a horse on all fours. I remember doing it now, after seeing the movie. It brings back thoughts and memories that are long gone."

But has the film brought father and daughter closer together like Aiyana, without saying it, hoped it would?

There's a protracted, embarrassed silence as both of them ponder the question. Then Jack offers the first answer.

"Well, we still live miles apart," he says, looking at her meekly. "We only see each other when we're doing interviews for the film. And when we do that we're on a tight schedule."

But he can't leave it at that. It's impossible for him not to launch into a story.

"It's a new experience for me in the industry. I've always been a traveling musician, playing in clubs, but it's different now. I have a home near San Francisco. I've had that for about nine years now, before that I lived in Sausalito for about two years in a motor home. Before that I was in a house with some other friends in Palm Springs. I don't own my home now, but I rent it. The Grammy I got is on the mantel piece. The cats like it very much. They like to rub on it. The Grammy came with an owner's manual warning you not to rub it with a rag because the thin gold leaf or whatever it is, might wear off. So we never polish it. The cats just gently rub on it and keep it shiny."

Aiyana is still patiently waiting to answer the original question. She knows her dad likes to go on and on. "We've gotten more time together," she finally says with a small smile. "I like it. Actually days like this, when we're doing stuff for the film, have been really nice for me because it ends up being a chance for us just to talk." So no, it looks like the problem hasn't actually been fixed. That's hinted at in the film, and pretty much proven by the way they're now acting.

But both of them have kind of accepted it, albeit on different levels. Aiyana will go on making films, Jack, who just turned 69, will continue singing and playing and talking. As a matter of fact, right in the middle of discussing the film, he finds himself irresistibly going off on other tangents, dripping with detail.

On meeting Lead Belly, the man who mentored Woody Guthrie:"I saw him live two or three times but only met him once. I saw him on a stage with Woody once in New York at what they used to call hootenannies. Then he was singing on a radio program in 1948. He died in '49. It was Oscar Brand's program, 'The Shoeless Troubadour.' It was in a small room at WNYC with an audience of about eight or 10 people. At the end of the program Lead Belly was putting his guitar in the case and I was just sort of wandering around the room and I accidentally bumped his elbow as he was about to put the guitar away. And I said, 'Oops.' And he said, 'Excuse me.' And that was our whole conversation. I'll never forget it. That was my whole communication with Lead Belly. Very important."

On the six years (1955-'61) that he lived in Europe:"Well, I didn't go there to make a living. My first wife, June, had much more of an itchy foot, a desire to travel around the world, than even I did. She wanted to see the world. Later, after we broke up, she got a job working as the road manager for the Rolling Stones when they were living in France. It was a tough job. She had to get the groceries, see to the laundry, be a translator, herd 'em in through airports, get 'em in and out of all the troubles and tribulations that they went through. So traveling with me on a motor scooter, going over the Alps in a blizzard, was boot camp for her. But she's actually a tougher traveler than I ever was, and she still is."

On the time he piloted a nuclear submarine:"They let me steer it for a little bit. I like driving big trucks. A friend of mine in Canada is a crane operator. And he let me operate a crane on top of a 40-story building they were constructing in Ottawa. I lifted up a big steel girder, hoisted it about three floors higher and swung it around and set it down to where a man caught it. He also let me drive a D-9 Caterpillar one time on a dock they were building in the dead of winter. It was about 20 below zero and windy. I don't know what the chill factor was but it was mighty cold. The submarine was in Hawaii. I was visiting on a schooner that had just come in to Maui from Tahiti, and two subs came from Pearl Harbor and dropped anchor off of Maui. Some of the officers from the sub came over to visit the schooner. I met them and asked if I could visit the sub. So I was one of 105 guests on the sub. They fed us all steaks. I sang 'Dark as a Dungeon' in the forward torpedo room. It was under 600 feet of water so it seemed like an appropriate song."

On touring with Cat Stevens:"I did a world tour with Cat Stevens that was well organized, with all expenses paid, 25 people in the troupe, road managers and technical assistants, and many, many suitcases and trunks to be transported. Cat Stevens had a big-size steamer trunk with nothing but guitar strings in there, 500 sets of guitar strings. He changed strings on every guitar every day. He was a good musician. I tried to be friends with him, but we didn't get along at all. I took him horseback riding four times. A cowboy friend in Florida invited Cat Stevens and the band and myself out to his mother's house to have some fish, and we were drinking tequila. And after the band and Cat Stevens went back to the hotel, we decided to go for a horseback ride by the light of the moon. We'd been drinking quite a lot of tequila evidently. So we were either too drunk to saddle up or too lazy to bother, and we rode bareback. Now I'm a good rider and they say that cowboys are never supposed to pull leather or hold onto the horn. But that's what it's for; it's OK to rest your hand on the horn. It's better than falling off and spending the rest of your life in a hospital. But I ended up in the hospital in Atlanta. I made it to Miami without any pain. I guess the tequila protected me. I didn't know I was injured. Went from Tampa to Miami and did a show. But my back went out on me four days later."