Woody Guthrie Lives On
by Tristam Lozaw (20 September 2020, Guitar.com)
Long considered the finest living interpreter of folk icon Woody Guthrie, Ramblin'
Jack Elliott's devotion to cowboy trails and troubadour songs has yielded him
a rich but hard life. As the voice of American folk music for much of the '50s
and '60s, Elliott, now 66, brought alive guitar songs of our dusty roads, rails,
hills and prairies not just for fans but for artists ranging from Johnny Cash,
Kris Kristofferson, and Odetta to Jackson Browne, Guy Clark and Arlo Guthrie.
Elliott's best-known disciple is Bob Dylan who, despite his obvious Guthrie-isms,
played his first New York gig as "the Son of Jack Elliott" and was criticized
early on for sounding too much like Elliott. Today, Elliott's voice, or at least
his channeling of Guthrie (who died in 1967), can be heard throughout popular
song, from Nanci Griffith to Tom Waits.
At 14, Elliott Charles Adnopoz became "Buck Elliott" and joined a traveling
rodeo, hoping to bury his roots as the son of a Jewish Brooklyn doctor. Rodeo
cowboys encouraged Elliott to pick up a guitar and he soon developed into a gifted
quicksilver flatpicker by copying the technique of players like Brahma Rogers.
In 1951, Ramblin' Jack's musical identity was sealed when he went to visit Woody
Guthrie and emerged a year and a half later as Woody's virtual Doppelganger.
During the '50s and '60s, Elliott busked his way across the rural South and West
and through Europe, scavenging folk blues and ballads along the way and recording
for the Topic, Prestige and Vanguard labels. In the late '60s, Elliott recorded
two albums for Warner Bros., the influential Bull Durham Sacks and Railroad Tracks
and Young Brigham (the tracks from both are available on the 1995 Rounder CD,
Me & Bobby McGee). The records were to be Elliott's U.S. breakthrough. When they
garnered only critical acclaim and not popular success, a bitter Elliott blamed
Warners' mismanagement and dropped out of the recording industry to become a hand-to-mouth
Pecos Bill of the folk underground. He has been touring hard ever since, zig-
zagging the world to sing songs like "Rock Island Line" and "Talking
Fisherman Blues" to a dedicated cult of admirers.
Last decade, the folk outlaw started to emerge from the shadows, aided by those who recognized Elliott's irreplaceable value as the keeper of the cowboy-troubadour folk flame and one of the few remaining links to the Beat poets and '60s coffeehouse counterculture. Ramblin' Jack has released more records in the last five years than in the previous 25, winning a Grammy for 1995's South Coast and recording 1998's widely heralded Friends of Mine. He's also the subject of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, an award-winning documentary by his daughter Aiyana that hits theaters this month with an accompanying Vanguard soundtrack CD.
Guitar.com: Your folk guitar technique was widely
copied in the '50s and '60s. You also taught guitar to Arlo Guthrie when his dad
was ill, and you were a mentor to Bob Dylan. How did you develop your flat-picking
Ramblin Jack: I started out wanting to pick the guitar
in a bluegrass style. I learned to play mostly by playing along with the cowboys.
I copied stuff from my friend Todd Fletcher. Then I played with Tom Paley, who
led the Doo Wop City Ramblers, in the late 1940s. Tom was my introduction to Woody
Guthrie, later in 1951. He played just like Merle Travis and I learned a lot from
watching and playing with him. I think Merle was the greatest picker of them all,
ever. I also liked Hobart Smith, he used steel finger picks and he would flail
over the strings with his down-picking, sliding down with fingernails or picks.
It was a most incredible style.
Guitar.com: Listening to radio programs like "The
Grand Ol' Opry" provided a lot of your early music training. Who are some
of the players you've admired, who have influenced you?
Ramblin Jack: I listened to Roy Acuff and Ernest
Tubb, Bill Monroe, loved Earl Scruggs' picking on the banjo, the Blue Sky Boys,
the Carter Family, and Burl Ives. And then I discovered Jimmie Rodgers and Woody
Guthrie. But the first guitarist I ever listened to was a jazz-blues-type player,
Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie sang torch songs, not really blues, and he was a very good
guitarist. He did a song I loved called "Tomorrow Night." Before that,
I listened to a lot of New Orleans jazz, -- [jazz brassman] Budd Johnson, Tommy
Dorsey, and Pinetop Smith, a classic boogie-woogie piano player. Pinetop recorded
four sides for Brunswick Records, then went to a bar to celebrate and his girlfriend
came in and shot him.
Guitar.com: You ran away from home to travel with
the rodeo cowboys, who inspired you to play guitar.
Ramblin Jack: Brahma Rogers was a rodeo clown who
played a great guitar, and we used to pay him a quarter to serenade us rodeo hands.
He'd sing songs and recite poems, jokes, and pass the hat. Another rodeo clown,
Lost John Cruthers, gave me my first cigar. After three months, he persuaded me
to go back home to finish high school, then I could do anything I wanted. My rodeo
bosses told me, "It ain't where you're from that's important. It's where
Guitar.com: That sort of became your "ramblin'
" creed, drifting across the landscape. And it led to great experiences.
Ramblin Jack: Yeah, like when I went to visit Woody
[Guthrie]. We just started playing music together and one day led to another.
It got to be a good thing and I ended up staying at his house for a year and a
half. When I left there, I rode all over Europe on a Vespa motorbike, 5,000 miles
in the rain every day with British writer Herb Green, and all over the rural U.S.
That was a great time in my life. Then I landed in Greenwich Village, where I
was friends with Bob Dylan and met Jack Kerouac. Jack had just finished writing
On the Road, and he read me the entire manuscript over three days, sitting on
a floor on Bleecker Street.
Guitar.com: Your nickname reflects not just your
endless travels but a gift for gab. How did you develop your other talent for
"rambling," your love of storytelling?
Ramblin Jack: I was just hitchhiking, taking rides
mostly in trucks because they were generally safer than cars. Truck drivers drove
for a living. With cars there was too much of a chance the driver would be drunk
or nuts or something and you'd end up in a ditch. And since truckers would go
longer distances there was a lot of time to kill. That's when I first got into
swapping life stories.
Guitar.com: A lot of those stories are in the songs
you sing, and you've picked up hundreds of folk tunes and ballads in your travels.
What makes a good song?
Ramblin Jack: Musically it's good if it has a pleasant
catchy melody, but I like the words more than music. I like songs that have words
and phrases that sound like real people speak, a Zen meaning that catches your
imagination. Like "Red Molly," [aka 1952 Vincent Black Lightning] a song that
British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson wrote about a Vincent motorcycle.
I'm always in awe of singer-songwriters, because I've only come up with 4 songs
in 40 years.
Guitar.com: You're the number one keeper of Woody
Guthrie's flame. Are there other performers' interpretations of Woody's material
that you like?
Ramblin Jack: I did like Billy Bragg. I saw him play
at a festival about 10 years ago and didn't know he was. But I immediately thought
of Woody because of the way Billy stood, played and sang. There was a great song
written about Woody by Wiley Hubbard. And I still like Bob Dylan's work, especially
the early stuff.
Guitar.com: Bob Dylan regarded your albums as the
folk Bible. But there's not much of a record of your time together. Tell us about
the duet with Bob on the new album.
Ramblin Jack: The Vanguard soundtrack CD from the
movie [The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack] has some songs that weren't included in the
movie and one of those tracks is a very rough, early recording from a radio program.
We spent a lot of time together back then. The track is a song that Bob had put
together. It was very crude and impromptu, with lots of giggling. I was singing
"doo wah, doo wah" while Bob was singing, "I got acne" [from Eric VonSchmidt's
song "Acne"]. But it embarrasses me to listen to it. Of all the stuff to put out!
But I don't think there are many other tapes of us together. I wish there were,
and I wished we had sung better, because we rarely performed together on a stage.
As a premier link to
Woody Guthrie and America's folk heritage, one who has crisscrossed various
continents, Ramblin' Jack Elliot has, out of necessity, traveled light when
it comes to guitars and music gear. Whether riding the rails, hitching a
lift from truckers, or buzzing around in his 15-year-old motor home, Elliott
is the epitome of a "small, mobile unit" -- to
borrow a phrase from Robert Fripp.
Guitar.com: What do you think of The Ballad of Ramblin'
Jack, your daughter Aiyana's documentary?
Ramblin Jack: I never saw the film until it won those
awards at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I was very tickled by
old footage of the family home, me as a baby, early-day rodeo shots, Madison Square
Garden, stuff I didn't know existed. My brother in Pasadena, who I rarely see,
had saved a lot of that, miraculously. Other things bothered me, though, like
showing me in full grump mode. I got tired of having the camera poked in my face
for three years. I think it's a little long, though they had excellent editors
to keep it lively. I'm just honored that I'm receiving so much attention.
As a premier link to Woody Guthrie and Americaís folk heritage, one who has
crisscrossed various continents, Rambliní Jack Elliot has, out of necessity, traveled
light when it comes to guitars and music gear. Whether riding the rails, hitching
a lift from truckers, or buzzing around in his 15-year-old motor home, Elliott
is the epitome of a ďsmall, mobile unitĒ -- to borrow a phrase from Robert Fripp.
But that doesnít mean Rambliní Jack doesnít have favorite guitars, like the one
that turned up two decades after it was stolen.
Guitar.com: What was your first guitar?
Ramblin Jack: My very first guitar was easily forgettable
Ė a $12 piece of junk made of cigar-box wood, a Collegiate. My first really good
guitar--you need a good guitar to really learn how to play -- was a Gretsch Rancher
model #75. I had the Gretsch when I met Woody.
Guitar.com: Do you still have it?
Ramblin Jack: When I went back to Europe I took a
Martin D-28, so I wouldnít damage the Gretsch. Later, I left the Gretsch at a
friendís place where it was stolen. It reappeared after it had been missing for
23 years. I donít know who stole it or how, but the person who returned it was
suspect, to be sure. He said it was given to him by my friend.
Guitar.com: You got it back? How did that happen?
Ramblin Jack: I went to a Kris Kristofferson show
and he invited me up on stage. We got to talking about the stolen guitar, and
the person who had it just happened to be in the audience and he gave it back.
It was battered and broken, though the case was perfect. It looked like it had
been run over by his dadís farm tractor. It took eight years to have it glued
back together. I donít really play the Gretsch any more. Itís too valuable as
a vintage guitar, and it doesnít sound as good now that its 25 percent glue. Iím
now on my second Martin D-28. My first was stolen on a Cat Stevens tour.
Guitar.com: What do you take on the road with you
Ramblin Jack: If Iím flying, I take a blonde maple
Guild acoustic, I think itís a J-50, that I got secondhand. Itís rugged and can
survive the airlinesí Professional Guitar Breakers Union. Itís too damn heavy,
though, I can hardly lift it.
Guitar.com: Have you ever played electric?
Ramblin Jack: Iíve fooled around a little on electrics.
I had an old Fender Telecaster--my brother has since sold it on me -- that was
given to me on the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder tour. But Iíve never really learned
anything about playing [an electric] right. I just banged on it like I would my
Martin. I did two songs on it with the [Rolling Thunder] band backing me up, and
that was real fun.
Guitar.com: Youíre pretty much a loner on stage,
but it sounds like youíd enjoy playing with a group just as much as solo.
Ramblin Jack: Itís a lot of fun to play with a group.
But I donít smoke cigarettes, so I have to be antisocial, as most musicians smoke.
I guess thatís why Iíve never traveled with my own band.
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