Ramblin' Jack's Friends Join Him on CD
Artists from Waits to Weir team up with legendary folksinger
by James Sullivan (Sunday, March 15, 2020, San Francisco Chronicle)
Lifelong storyteller Ramblin' Jack Elliott says he stayed away from the studio when his friend Roy Rogers was putting the finishing touches on Elliott's latest album, "Friends of Mine." "I didn't want to be distractin' people, ramblin'," he says, smiling sheepishly on a recent rainy afternoon at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. "I tend to digress." That's putting it mildly. Rarely has an entertainer been as aptly nicknamed as the 67-year-old "Ramblin' " Jack. Not only is he a talker -- he's a wanderer, too. A son of New York, Ramblin' Jack ran away at 15 to join the rodeo. For 50 years, he has lived the peripatetic life of a rural bohemian with a penchant for Stetsons and neckerchiefs -- a horseman, sailor and motor-home driver who has counted himself a friend to fellow romancers of the American road from Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Recorded for Oakland's Hightone Records and available Tuesday, "Friends of Mine" is perhaps the most significant release of Elliott's long career. Produced by Rogers, whose studio work helped restore John Lee Hooker to prominence, the album features the cowboy folksinger performing duets with Waits and with Guthrie's son Arlo, as well as song craftsmen Guy Clark and John Prine, country doyennes Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. "I didn't put this record together," Elliott says. "Roy did. All I had to do was sing." Typically, when artists agreed to record a track with Elliott he lets them pick the song. " `Friend of the Devil' (with Weir) was an easy choice," he says, "because when I was living at Bob's house right here in Mill Valley about 20 years ago, he gave me a copy of a Grateful Dead record and he underlined this song. I don't know that he had any plan for recording it (with me). He just thought it'd be a good song for me to sing." Sonoma resident Waits wrote "Louise" for his session with Elliott, who lives in the tiny coastal community of Marshall. "I love Tom," Elliott says. "I've known him for over 20 years. I met him in L.A., when I was hanging out with the guys in the Band." Waits, a devoted student of the Beat generation, took an immediate shine to Elliott. "It was almost strange," Elliott says. "He was kind of worshipful. He had this wonderful, shy personality. "In fact, he's still so shy he doesn't want to go on TV with me." Representatives for "The Tonight Show" recently contacted Elliott to see if he could get Waits to do their duet on the program. "He says, `I'll sit home and watch you,' " Elliott says, mimicking Waits' barnacle goose rasp. Elliott has forged notable friendships throughout his life, set in motion by his youthful association with the senior Guthrie.
"I lived with Woody and his family in 1951 and '52, near Coney Island in Brooklyn," recalls Elliott, who says the two men played a lot of guitar together. "We didn't hardly do nothing else." "He taught me a way of playing guitar cleaner and better, and how to play with another person, like a fiddler -- `Don't play a lot of fancy notes, because they'll get mixed up with the fiddle and they sound mushy. Play a hard, loud bass, and keep the beat, most important of all.' " With a sigh, Elliott notes that Guthrie taught him some harder lessons, too. "As a role model, he gave me several bad habits that caused me to have three divorces in a row. My wives always mentioned Woody Guthrie in the papers as a reason why they would divorce me." With Guthrie's health declining because of a hereditary neurological disorder, Elliott traveled to Europe in the mid-'50s, where he and singer Derroll Adams became the first buskers to bring American folk music to the subways and street corners of the Old World. As the story goes, a little schoolboy named Mick Jagger was dumbstruck by the duo; he went out and bought his first guitar the next day. "That's what he told me when I first met him," Elliott says, "about 15 years ago in Toronto." While in Italy, Elliott learned that the manuscript Kerouac had read for him, "On the Road," had been causing quite a stir. "I saw it in the newspaper," Elliott says. " `Eh-Jack-a Kerouac-a.' I said, I know this guy! `Onna the Road.' It was a big deal. If the news was in Italy, you can be sure it must have been big in America." Upon returning to the United States in 1961, Elliott headed straight for the hospital where Guthrie was staying. "I met Bob Dylan right there in the hospital," he recalls. "He was still doing a lot of traditional songs, great old Jimmie Rodgers songs, railroad blues. Most everybody couldn't stand his voice, because it was way out of control. And he was going through puberty. Couldn't even grow a beard. He was a cute kid, though. He looked like a poet." Dylan's continuing impact on Elliott is evident throughout "Friends of Mine." The album title was inspired by the bard's "He Was a Friend of Mine," which Elliott recorded with Jerry Jeff Walker. John Prine suggested they collaborate on the Dylan obscurity "Walls of Red Wing," a song Elliott admits he still doesn't know by heart. And Dylan's recent hospitalization for a heart problem inspired Elliott to write one of the few original songs he's ever penned, the record's final track, "Bleeker Street Blues." "I don't know how to start writing," he says. "I never even gave it a try. I noticed that every guitar player had (printed lyrics for) 50 to 100 songs they wrote in their guitar case. I was the only one I knew that never wrote his own."
Winner of the best traditional folk album Grammy for 1995's "South Coast," Elliott says he's thankful for the good fortune he's had. Had he not met Guthrie, he might have chosen an entirely different career path. "I was gonna be a veterinarian, but I didn't like the smell of the air in the chem lab." Today, he spends much of his time by the water, working on his boat. "I like ships," he says. "Ships and horses and music. In that order."
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