The ballad of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
by David Guilbault (16 June 2020, MSNBC)
Elliott performs Woody Guthrie's "Grand Coulee Dam" at the Tractor Tavern
SEATTLE, June 16 — All my life, as a bona fide ’60s folkie, I heard about
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, but I never actually heard the legendary folksinger and
roustabout. I knew he rambled with Woody Guthrie and Jack Keroauc and inspired
the likes of Bob Dylan and a whole generation of Greenwich Village troubadours.
Now, thanks to a new documentary on his life, some recent CDs and an afternoon
being regaled by the man, I know why listeners are drawn to the storyteller
and his tales.
RAMBLIN JACK ELLIOTTS own story is pure Americana. At the restless
age of 15, Elliott Charles Adnopoz fled his suburban Long Island upbringing,
hitched a ride south with a trucker, joined a rodeo, became enamored with cowboy
reverie, and along the way changed his name to Jack Elliott.
Hes been ropin, ridin, singin,
pickin, truckin, sailin, tokin, drinkin,
marryin, yodelin, travelin and ramblin ever since.
Elliott taught himself guitar and became a musical
sponge, absorbing and enhancing hot flat-picking guitar licks he learned by
listening to records over and over, and by hanging with some folk and blues
LEARNIN AND TEACHIN
Musically, Elliott is perhaps best known for his
early dead-on faithful renditions of Woody Guthrie songs. Jack hung with the
prolific folk-song composer, traveled with him, lived with him, cared for him,
learned from him, and carried on for him after Woody passed on from Huntingtons
Over the years, Elliotts song interpretations
and repertoire grew, harvesting the landscape of cowboy poetry and true American
country and western music.
As Elliott had learned from Guthrie, young singers
and songwriters like Bob Dylan learned from Elliott, adopting his style of singing
and wishing to emulate his lifestyle.
Although he had big-label record deals in the U.S.,
commercial success eluded him, perhaps by chance, perhaps by choice. In any
event, he stopped making records for about two decades. But he never stopped
bandwidth (20 MB) Switch between three camera angles as Elliot performs
excerpt from "With God on Our Side."
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In the last decade of the 20th century, Ramblin
Jack Elliot has been on a roll. A 1996 album for Redhouse
Records, South Coast, won a Grammy for best traditional folk
album. That was followed by two CDs from Hightone
Records, produced by blues artist Roy Rogers, Friends of Mine
and The Long Ride.
On Friends of Mine, he performs duets
with Arlo Guthrie, Guy Clark, Tom Waits, John Prine, Rosalie Sorrels, Emmylou
Harris, Nanci Griffith and Jerry Jeff Walker. Thats a helluva a roster
of friends. The album is a treat.
There are also a variety of good reissues of his
earliest recordings on CD, like Hard Travelin, from Fantasy
Records. Still, he is largely unheard by the general record-buying public.
A new documentary by his daughter Aiyana Elliott,
now making the festival circuit, may change that. Called The Ballad of
Ramblin Jack, it is a poignant look at Elliotts place in
American folk music and how the endless stream of distant places he wandered
made him a distant father. Jack says it should have been called In Search
of Ramblin Jack.
He first saw the film at the 2000 Sundance festival,
where it won the Special Jury Award for Artistic Achievement. There were
moments when I was proud and moments when I wanted to disappear down into the
floor, he said.
Aiyana Elliott told me personal, emotional
reasons I dont entirely understand drove her to make the movie
about her fathers career because she found it frustrating to hear
his life reduced to just the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
She wanted to give him his professional due.
But she also wanted to explore their life-long, long-distance
relationship. She admits that even after traveling with him and filming him
on the road for the documentary, she still sees her father partly as an enigma.
In the film, she laments, Ive got everything but you Dad.
The film features rare early performances and interviews
with friends and family. It opens in New York City on Aug. 16 and a soundtrack
is also to be issued by Vanguard Records in early August, featuring songs from
the movie and never-before-released duets with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
Elliott was never known as a family man,
although he had four wives June, Patty, Polly and Martha. But he befriended
people all over the country who considered him friend and family.
He told me, Ive been part of many families
... in which I wasnt married to their daughter. I was just a friend.
After being a friend for some time they said, Jack, youre family.
And that felt really good. He went on to say, A friend is somebody
who will give you a helping hand and not demand payment. Every story
Ive now heard told of Elliott is about time well spent.
By the way, the ramblin moniker, which
folksinger Odettas mother gave him, isnt about his travels, its
about his stories, which are anything but short. Everyone who talks of Jack
Elliott has their own story of how he kept them in rapt attention for hours
with tales from his life. I know. I heard some of them straight from the source.
RAMBLIN WITH JACK
Theres no denying that Elliott is charming
and engaging. Im sitting with him and his soon-to-be fifth wife, Ramblin
Jan Currie in a restaurant booth at Hatties Hat, down the street from
Tractor Tavern where hes playing. Were having dinner between the
sound-check and the gig.
Jack is visibly tired and worried about having the
energy to do the show after being up since 4 a.m. doing press interviews. Still,
while picking at a plate of meatloaf with Guiness gravy (on the side), homemade
creamed corn and pinto beans (his favorite), he goes on and on generously and
randomly with his wandering thoughts. He talks about:
If he hadnt had to leave to get ready for his gig, he surely would have gone on regaling me. And I would have been enthralled.
The intricacies and dangers of landing a ski plane on the Alaskan tundra.
- His offer to give Bob Dylan his favorite Martin guitar after Dylans hospitalization.
- Getting real moo-cow milk for his coffee instead of chemical half-n-half in little sealed cups.
- The psychology behind why fans want to befriend performers.
- Hunting for down-home outdoor clothing in a Seattle specialty store.
- The curse of bad airline air.
- The absolute joy of wooden boats.
- The latest song hes learning to play (I learn a new one every five years).
A LIFE WELL-LIVED
At 68 and still pickin, Ramblin Jack Elliott is a living testament to the joys of a serendipitous and uncomplicated life.
And he continues to be an inspiration to new folkies. Singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding showed up at the screening of the documentary in Seattle and at the pre-show dinner and then performed with Elliott at the Tractor Tavern all so he could spend time with Elliott and have stories of his own to tell.
When I asked Ramblin Jack what he wanted to be known for, he offered a simple answer: The man who gave a million dollars worth of entertainment for every five hundred thousand dollars we took in at the door.
When I asked what were the necessities of a ramblin life, his answer was even simpler: A guitar and guitar picks, a toothbrush and toothpicks.
Now I hear ya Jack.
David Guilbault is a senior producer for News at MSNBC.com.
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