By Dan Armonaitis (16 Oct. 1999, Creative
Loafing Online: Greenville/ Spartanburg)
Ramblin' Jack Elliott is more than just a folk singer, he's a great American storyteller who has seemingly seen it all during a career that has spanned nearly a half century. Simply put, the 68-year-old living legend has been everywhere and done everything with everyone. Last year, Elliott was rewarded for his illustrious career by being presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in a ceremony at the White House.
Among Elliott's first friends in the music business was his main influence, Woody Guthrie. Nearly fifty years ago, a young Elliott showed up at Guthrie's house and stayed two years according to legend. These days, an Elliott album isn't complete without at least one Guthrie composition. His latest effort for Hightone Records, The Long Road, contains a version of "Ranger's Command" and his 1998 Grammy nominated record, Friends of Mine, contained Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'," done as a duet with Jerry Jeff Walker. Other friends who were guests on the album included Arlo Guthrie, Tom Waits, John Prine, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, and Nanci Griffith.
Through Guthrie, Elliott met a young Bob Dylan in 1961, their first encounter coming at the hospital in New Jersey where Guthrie stayed during the last few years of his life.
"Bob and I took a bus back to New York City together and he told me that he had a lot of my records that I had recorded in England," Elliott says. "He told me that he had quite a collection of them back in Minnesota. And so, he was a fan of mine. I was flattered and took a liking to the kid. And we ended up living in the same hotel together. He took a room right down the hall from me. And we saw a lot of one another for the next two years."
In the mid-1970s, Elliott reconnected with Dylan becoming a full-fledged member of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. But Dylan wasn't the only person who changed the face of rock n' roll who claims Elliott as an influence. While at a train station in Rochester, England during the 1950s, Elliott may have unknowingly been responsible for the eventual creation of one of the world's greatest rock n' roll bands, the Rolling Stones.
"We were waiting for a train back to London and there was a group of schoolchildren on the other platform across the tracks from us," Elliott explains. "And I thought, 'Well, look at those kids just standing around bored. I think I'll play them a little music. What the heck.' And I just got the guitar out of my case and started yodeling and playing cowboy songs to these kids across the way. They appreciated it and I think they even clapped. But I didn't know one of those kids was young Mick Jagger. He told me about it when I met him about 20 years later in a hotel in Canada. He said that was the first time he'd seen me and that he ran right out the next day and bought a guitar. He must have been about 12, 14 years-old or something like that."
Singing cowboy legend Gene Autry was the first to leave such an impression on Elliott when he was a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, although it wasn't lasting.
"I saw Gene Autry at the rodeo in 1940 when I was nine-years-old," Elliott recalls. "Gene Autry was the singing star of the rodeo and he came in on horseback, on Champion, in the dark with the spotlights on. It was very dramatic....So I got pretty fascinated with Gene Autry. I listened to his radio program for the next year or so and went to some Gene Autry movies and became a real Autry fan. And I thought, 'well, I'm going to have to grow up to be a friend of Gene Autry's,' fantasizing.
"Then, my dad took me to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden again in 1941," Elliott continues. "And there was this cowboy leaning up against the building and I stopped to look up at him, and he reached down and shook my hand and we talked for awhile. I was amazed to be actually talking to a real cowboy. And I noticed there was quite a lot of difference between this real cowboy and Gene Autry. After that, I lost all interest in Gene Autry and all those Hollywood guys and started focusing on the real cowboys."
Because of his fascination with cowboys, early in his music career many people believed that the native New Yorker was from a rural background. In fact, he once wisecracked to Newsweek magazine about being "born on a 40,000 acre ranch in Brooklyn." And after first meeting Guthrie, he frequently told people he was "Buck Elliott from Oklahoma."
All of Elliott's life hasn't centered around music and cowboys, however. He also has a fascination with traveling and his worldwide travels have taken him to places even Hank Snow has never been. So when Jack Kerouac read aloud the entire then unpublished manuscript for his beat classic On the Road to Elliott and a group of friends in Greenwich Village, Elliott listened intently with fascination.
"It was very enjoyable to be sitting on the floor there in a modest little fourth story walk-up apartment on Bleecker Street listening to him read that story and sharing those adventures with him," Elliott says, adding that it took three days for Kerouac to finish the reading. "I had been hitchhiking and bumming around on and off for about six years, but I hadn't had a lot of the crazy and wild adventures to the extent that he was describing. But I had been around enough people like that to relate to it wonderfully and I thought it was great. What a story."
Elliott compares On the Road, in many ways to the works of Guthrie.
"It had a lot of Woody's love of people in it, although Woody was from a different era," Elliott says. "His people were not beats, they were just tired hardworking folks looking for a job and sleeping under bridges. The dust bowl refugees were quite a different thing. All and all, I think I prefer Woody's book. I'm from Woody's thing, although I'm not of his generation and didn't experience the starvation and the deprivation and the hardships of riding freights and stuff like that."
Because of Elliott's own adventures with so many 20th century icons, it seems inevitable that he will publish his own book eventually.
"I'm trying to scribble down my memoirs but it's very hard to get started," Elliott says. "I have barely started. I'm always writing and scribbling, but I don't have anything that's worth reading yet. I'm just a hopeless amateur. But I've had a lot of encouragement from people who want me to write a book, and I want to write a book too."
In the meantime, his daughter, Aiyana, is busy finishing a documentary film on her father, which is expected to be available next year.
says that she's got enough footage where she doesn't need to bother
me anymore by sticking the camera in my face," Elliott says with a laugh.
"I really am tired of being followed around with cameras and microphones.
It should be a good film. She was a prize winning student in her class
at the film school at NYU, and she's got some really great people working
with her....It's difficult to know what the final outcome is going to
be because she's got over a hundred hours of film. She's got to pick
out all the good stuff and get rid of some other good stuff, because
there's probably too damn much good stuff to make a two hour movie."
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