Not so long ago, many American boys dreamed of becoming cowboys—but of course few really did. Teenager Elliott Charles Adnopoz of 1940s Brooklyn, however, made his dream come true, running away from home to live the cowboy life. While that career choice didn't last too long, it influenced the rest of his life, as he evolved into Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a true American musical hero—often called an icon, a living legend and a pioneer. All of which he is.
Ramblin' Jack has lived in West Marin for well over two decades. He was born on August 1st—his birthday is next week—at least eight decades ago, but as he notes below, he is now "aging backwards." Hearing and seeing him play his guitar and sing, one tends to believe him. He still tours consistently, but given that airports drive him "crazy," his travels tend to be literally on the road, as he has been famed for since the 1950s. And all that traveling means that he's had memorable encounters and friendships with many renowned figures—some of the most famed in modern American culture. Yet Jack himself remains about as down-to-earth a guy as one could ever meet, more prone to talk about transmissions and horses than anything else—although he'll talk about just about anything.
His musical career has been up and down, with fame first garnered in the 1960s, then a fallow period, then a resurgence with his first Grammy for his album South Coast in 1995—for best traditional folk album—and then another, for best traditional blues album, in 2009 for A Stranger Here. But despite his collection of Grammy awards, he still sails a small boat on Tomales Bay.
So, how does a nice Jewish boy named Elliott Adnopoz from New York City become a folk legend named Ramblin' Jack Elliott?
Well, I've been nice, but I wasn't very Jewish. My dad was a doctor and the phone was always ringin' all night long and he was running out on house calls to deliver babies and such. When I was 9 I saw a rodeo in Madison Square Garden and when Gene Autry came splashing in on his horse through a disc of white paper with his hat, saddle and spurs and came galloping around the arena, that was it for me. I was a cowboy in my heart from then on.
And soon you were gone on the road yourself ...
In September 1945 the war had just ended and I was 14 and I heard hoof beats on the street and it was a real cowboy. Not long after, I took off with a couple of poets, hitchhiking, and at a truck stop a driver had room for only one person and I took it and never saw them again.
How long were you gone that time before your parents started looking for you? There's a "missing person" sign your parents made that says: "May be on a ranch. Parents not opposed to him staying on ranch."
You think they wanted to get rid of me? They were tired of me roping the furniture. Anyway, with the cowboys I found I lived on flapjacks and one old rodeo clown knew my folks were lookin' for me and said: "If you stay here you will end up being a cowboy, but if you go to high school and get your dee-ploma you can do anything, including being a cowboy." So I went home and thanked my parents for inviting me back.
How'd you pick up the guitar?
I was just strumming a bit, but when I went back I got more serious about it.
And then something very important happened in your life, about 1951—you met Woody Guthrie. His daughter once said you became his closest friend.
I was hanging out in Greenwich Village—this is a very unromantic story; I wish I could say I met Woody changing trains in a yard in Omaha, or something—but I'd heard from other singers he was not feeling very good already, and called him up. We spent a lot of time together over the next few years, did some travelin', and sang a lot of songs together. He was a great influence and some of his songs are some of the greatest poetry describing man's inhumanity and with some good ideas on how the world could maybe be a better place to live. He was the Walt Whitman of the working man, and he thought the communists had some good ideas and that caused him some trouble, but they wouldn't really have him, as he was a bit too sloppy of dress.
Around then, I heard that Jack Kerouac read the entire manuscript of On the Road to you. How long did that take?
Three days and three bottles of wine. I think he had a thing for my girlfriend. He came around many times to visit, along with other authors and poets.
Well, somewhere it says that both Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg thought you were the one who was very good at stealing other guys' girlfriends ...
Those writers were very biased, you know.
Then you got married and moved first to Hollywood and then to London ...
We got to London in 1955 and were in and out of there for six years, with my wife Jan—I mean June—I crossed wives there; Jan's another wife ... we had a great time traveling around Europe on a Vespa motor scooter. Anyway, back in London they had these big tabloids and I recall seeing one reading, "FILM STAR DIES," and it was one of June's ex-boyfriends, a cat named James Dean who was just starting out. I'd met him some and serenaded him some in his white Porsche—the first Porsche in America—and the one he died in here in California.
And when you got back to New York, there was this early 60s "great folk scare" scene going on ...
That's right, but I wasn't aware of it as such; when you are in the middle of something it's not like it was on TV or something.
And there was this other nice non-Jewish boy named Bob Zimmerman, or Dylan, around. He was a young kid who wanted to be a singer.
Yeah, Bob had just hitched in from Minnesota, to see Woody as much as anything, and was only 19 years old. I was there too, so we met.
In his book Chronicles, Dylan wrote, after he heard one of your records: "Damn this guy was great ... he was so confident it made me sick ... Elliott was far beyond me ... I'd have to block him out of my mind, forget this thing, tell myself I hadn't heard him and he didn't exist. He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The U.S. hadn't been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he'd stay gone." It sounds like you gave the young Dylan an existential crisis!
I didn't mean to—I'd never heard of him yet at that point. But later I learned his song "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" from his record, over a bottle of Cutty Sark—the one with the clipper ship on the label—stuck in a nice warm cabin in a snowstorm for three days—that was some kind of speed record for me, as it usually takes me three to six months to learn a song. And, when it thawed out we drove my 1950 Chevy truck motorhome up to New York City where they were having an open mic with all sorts of folksingers, would-be folksingers and has-beens, with my pals Dave Van Ronk, Peter and Paul—Mary was out shopping I believe—and I thought I'd get up on stage, as the previous singer had been booed off the stage. I sang "Don't Think Twice" and Bob was there, and it's dark in there with only a little light sort of glinting off his halo and he said: "I relinquish it to you." I'd never had anything relinquished to me but it's one of my favorite songs ever since.
Van Ronk wrote in his book that your parents finally came to see you play around then and your mom loudly said: "Look at those fingers—such a surgeon he could have been!"
Yeah, sometimes they never let up on all that ...
You kept on recording through the 60s and into the 70s, and then reunited with Dylan for his 1975 "Rolling Thunder Revue" tour, with Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, all sorts of people, and some of Dylan's greatest performances.
That was great fun. There was too much whiskey. And there was a filmmaker doing a modern-day fairytale—a very long one ...
That was Renaldo and Clara, Dylan's notoriously baffling four-hour flick. After that you started recording in earnest again, and things seem to have taken off for you, and you wound up with Grammys in both folk and blues ...
Bob Dylan wrote me a letter of introduction to the great John Hammond Sr., who had signed Bob to Columbia Records and had practically discovered everybody from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday to a long list, a charming man who I'd never met ... Bob wrote: "Dear John, I want to introduce Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who is my long-lost father ..." etc., full of such nonsense. Obviously I'm not old enough to be Bob's dad; I'm only 10 years older. It was great. And John's son played on one of my records—in fact Dylan played harp on one, too, but couldn't use his real name so he was "Tedham Porterhouse." That record has just been reissued on vinyl, called just Jack Elliott. I think I've done at least 20 LPs all total.
By 1998 you were in the White House getting the Presidential Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton. After all your hard traveling, what was that like? How was the food?
The food was very good, once we got to it. I didn't really know what to say to him. I don't really rehearse such things, I just kind of blurt it out, hoping that it's gonna be true. Now, I'd had one solid bourbon in the Abraham Lincoln Room and then two glasses of red wine before the dinner came and I got a little bit carried away—I get patriotic when I'm drinking and they were playing "America the Beautiful" and I was singing along "A-MERrrrica ..." and my wife Jan was a bit embarrassed. She looked over at the presidential table where Clinton was sitting with Gregory Peck, but Clinton and he were just grinning with me. I was singing along with the United States Marine Marching Band. I don't know if they have a recording of that one.
Your latest record came out in 2009, called A Stranger Here and it is fantastic, with a wonderful band, recorded in a basement once owned by the widow of President James Garfield in Los Angeles, produced by Joe Henry with guys from Los Lobos and such, and is mostly blues-based songs.
I had little to do with putting that one together, actually. I listened to about 15 of the wildest and greatest old blues songs the record company guy had recommended, only some of which I'd heard and only one of which I already knew [how] to play. I just sort of took a musical bath there and let the music flow by as I listened to them, and then when I went down to Pasadena and met the guys and [we] started playing together I just thought: "Oh, OK, this is gonna be no problem, no worries. In fact, it's gonna be great."
And it sure was. I think Joe Henry writes in the liner notes: "How many people in the seventh decade of their musical career are making the best music of their life?" It's just incredible stuff.
Well, I thank you. And him.
I bet you've never counted, but how many songs do you think you know?
Hmm, I did count way back once when I was a kid, and I probably knew more than 300. Woody wrote 2,000 of 'em. I only know about 25 of his now I think. But Woody once wrote a long, long ballad about The Grapes of Wrath called "Tom Joad" and he put the whole big fat book into about 14 verses of a song. He later received a letter from John Steinbeck who was very pissed off and wrote: "You little son of a bitch, it took me 600 pages to say what you did in that one song!"
How did you end up living in West Marin?
Well, I first came here right after I met Woody, and he told me to go across the street from the hospital, where he was sick, to meet his wife and kid. I then drove out in a car, and I've always loved boats ... [Here Jack launches into a long involved technical description of boats, sailing and trucks with many names and dates, more about Woody Guthrie, touring with Cat Stevens and getting his favorite guitar stolen, all of it fascinating ... but never gets back to West Marin—but does demonstrate how he got his lifelong nickname "Ramblin'."]
OK then; we can see now why Kris Kristofferson said about you: "I never heard anyone so enchanting on subjects I didn't give a damn about."
Well, I do sometimes get carried away on subjects and forget what I was talking about. Pete Seeger was singing me "Happy Birthday" backstage at the Newport Folk Festival and I saw the cake and it said "80" on it and I thought: "Never been there, ain't going there"—so I double-clutched, got it into reverse, and I'm going backwards now, and I'm 78 now, goin' on 77. It's the best decision I ever made. And I still go out on tour just to get cat food and diesel fuel—I like trucks, and the sound of trains and trucks, horses snortin' ... and some music. I'll keep making it as long as they let me. And then some.
Ramble on with Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.