Woody Guthrie, regarded by many as the greatest folksinger/writer America ever produced, naturally attracted more than his share of disciples. So when a young Jewish boy showed up at Woody’s house, announced himself as a singer, and began to hang around, people didn’t take that much notice. Within a few years, that young man had learned all Woody’s songs and taken on a lot of Woody’s mannerisms and was playing Woody’s music wherever he could.
By now, you may be nodding and saying, “Yes, I know the story of Bob Dylan sitting at Woody’s knee.” Nope — this is the story of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who has spent the last half-century as one of the last best links to Woody, and in the process, mentoring Bob Dylan and not incidentally, becoming one of the best pickers and story tellers in the world of American roots music.
A five-time Grammy Award nominee and two-time winner, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott arrives at the Patriots Theater in Trenton on Thursday, September 30.
Ramblin’ Jack is now an icon himself and not just because of his connection to Dylan and Woody. Since the early 1950s he has sung and recorded hundreds of folk songs on over 40 albums. His style of flat-picking guitar has influenced generations, and in his day he has crossed paths with just about everyone in American roots music — Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Odetta, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, the Grateful Dead, and Pete Seeger, as well as James Dean, and beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In the early 1960s, when he returned from a few years in Europe, young folk singers crowded into small clubs in Greenwich Village to see this singer that they heard so much about. They still do today.
The Jack Elliott who wanders onto stage these days is close to looking 80 in the eye, but he still has the long, lean mien of a weather-beaten cowboy, complete with his ever-present Stetson, an accoutrement he sported long before the country hat acts were born. It’s a bit startling, then, when you hear for the first time that he was born Elliott Adnopoz, son of a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn. He wasn’t close to his parents — on the rare occasions he has discussed his father, he has described him as “cold,” and of his mother, her own sister stated matter-of-factly in a documentary, “Nobody liked her.” Jack’s daughter made that documentary about her father, “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack,” in 2000.
The family took some summer vacations in the country, and the young boy was enamored of horses and pick-up trucks and especially, cowboys. He spent his hours listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other country-and-western songs on the radio. Not surprisingly, at the age of 14, when he heard about a rodeo at Madison Square Garden, the cowboy wannabe ran off to see it. He didn’t come back.
At least not right away. He was down south with the rodeo, learning guitar from a cowboy. After three months and some runaway posters (“He may be on a ranch. Parents not opposed to his staying on ranch,” said the police notice), he was persuaded to return home. But soon after high school, he was gone again — not just gone from Brooklyn, but gone from Elliott Adnopoz as well. He was Buck Elliott, after the cowboy star Buck Jones, and soon Buck became Ramblin’ Jack.
There have been more than one critic, and a few fellow artists, who decried Jack as a sham when they found that he was a Brooklyn cowboy. But Pete Seeger saw it another way, pointing out that America has a long-standing tradition of re-invention. In his 1964 book “The Incompleat Folksinger,” Seeger writes:
“Jack Elliott is a self-made man. Some people inherit their riches, others earn them in a slow, painful way, and Jack, in the face of years of discouragement, has slowly made himself into one of the finest pickers and singers and all-around entertainers I’ve ever seen on a stage.
“When some people find out that Jack Elliott was born in Brooklyn — he with his cowboy hat and boots, rough lingo, and expert guitar playing — their first reaction is ‘Oh, he’s a fake.’ They’re dead wrong. Jack reborned himself in Oklahoma. He didn’t just learn some new songs. He changed his whole way of living.”
“Dear Jack, Now didn’t you ramble!!?!!!’’ asked Johnny Cash when penning the liner notes for Elliott’s 1968 Reprise album, “Young Brigham.” Well, yes he did. But his first important ramble wasn’t too far a trek; he wandered over to the Queens home of Woody Guthrie in 1950. He moved in with the family and became Woody’s disciple, fellow traveler, protector, and friend, as Guthrie began to exhibit the signs of the debilitating, always fatal disease, Huntington’s chorea, which would take his life in 1967. Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, says in the documentary, “He (Woody) was very grateful to have a protege as he was losing his life. He was happy to pass on everything he knew, because he knew he didn’t have time.”
After some time with Woody, Jack knew almost all the Guthrie canon. He released an album, “Woody Guthrie’s Blues,” in 1955, singing like Woody, talking like Woody, and becoming a rambler like Woody. “He sounds more like me than I do myself,” Guthrie remarked. Jack traveled on his own, as well, journeying through the South and Southwest, picking up folk songs, blues, and Appalachian music.
In 1955 he and banjo player Derroll Adams headed for England, busking for their dinner and a place to sleep. They found a burgeoning folk scene in Europe, and were welcome as authentic practitioners of the art. Elliott made some albums in England, letting the Brits hear all those songs he’d collected and learned: “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Diamond Joe,” “Buffalo Skinners,” “Chisholm Trail,” and a healthy dose of Woody.
When he returned to America in 1961, folk music had taken over Greenwich Village, and everyone wanted to hear Jack Elliott. Even before he showed up, “Jack was literally a legend,” recalled fellow folk star Dave Van Ronk.
And among those listening was a cherubic-faced ball of energy from Minnesota, 10 years younger than Jack, who had just started to call himself Bob Dylan, and was a self-professed acolyte of Woody Guthrie’s as well.
Suze Rotolo was Dylan’s girlfriend back then. In her 2008 memoir, “A Freewheelin’ Time,” she recalls Jack: “He was a low-key, deadpan, very entertaining, funny man — he was wonderful to be around. He did ramble, but it was his way of talking that gave him the name Ramblin’ Jack. He would start a story and wander all over before he let his words trail off into the distance.”
Dylan looked up to the older singers in the village — Von Ronk, Liam Clancy, Fred Neil — but he attached himself to Elliott, and very soon, as Elliott had sounded more like Woody than Woody, Dylan out-Elliotted Elliott. In November, 1961, promoter Izzy Young rented a small hall in the Carnegie Hall building and presented a Bob Dylan concert. It was not a success.
“He did so many Jack Elliott things,” Young recalls, “even raising his leg the way Jack does, using those Elliott mannerisms, and using practically all Elliott material. Bobby thought it was a failure, he called it a flop.”
Elliott commented on Dylan’s usurpation of his style in his daughter’s documentary. “People tried to get me to get mad. I thought it was a compliment,” he says. “He had a lot of ambition. More than I ever had.”
A somewhat crestfallen Dylan soon became known for his original material and left the Elliott imitations behind. In those first flushed days of fame, he liked to deny that he had ever been influenced by Elliott, and as he became the enigmatic poet/prophet, cut off communication with a lot of his friends and inspirations from the Village days. Elliott joked about it, and always acknowledged Dylan’s great talent. In concert, when he was singing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” he would reminisce about the first time he sang the song at the Gaslight in New York, “And a nasal voice came from the back of the hall (perfect Dylan imitation) ‘I relinquish it to ya, Jack!’”
People close to Elliott, though, knew he was hurt that Dylan ignored the connection. His comment on Dylan’s ambition was probably right on the mark, though, and Elliott never pretended to be a songwriter. There wasn’t much chance his star would rise like Dylan’s; nor did he seem to want it to.
The rift would eventually heal; Dylan invited Elliott to join his 1975 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. And in his 2004 semi-autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan writes of Elliott, “He plays the guitar effortlessly in a fluid flat-picking perfected style. Another thing — he was a brilliant entertainer, something that most of the folk musicians didn’t bother with. Most folk musicians waited for you to come to them. Jack went out and grabbed you. Jack was the King of Folksingers.”
His lack of focus and an inability to plan drove many people close to Elliott crazy, particularly his wives and would-be managers. They expressed annoyance with his irresponsibility, but almost always with great affection. Elliott would never have a set playlist, he would tell a long, rambling (duh!) story before launching into a song. He would start a gig late. It’s the kind of thing that endeared him to fans, but it makes it hard to put rear ends in the seats and food on the table.
Elliott recorded and rambled all through the ’60s, singing the old songs and championing new songwriters like Tim Hardin and Kris Kristofferson, but he never broke through to mainstream stardom. Other musicians revered him. His 1969 appearance on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV series saw him promoting his first release with a major label, Reprise’s “Young Brigham.” The cover of that album shows Elliott on his horse tossing a very authentic looking lariat at the camera.
The songs on “Young Brigham” are a mixture of old and new — a Woody Guthrie talking blues, Tim Hardin’s now-classic “If I Were A Carpenter,” an old-time Americana favorite “Rock Island Line,” and for the youngsters, as Ed Sullivan used to say, the Rolling Stones’ song “Connection.” But the most striking is “912 Greens,” a song-story penned by Elliott, telling of one of his rambles down to New Orleans. It seems to sum up the kind of life he has led, and ends with the poignant couplet:
“Did you ever stop and shiver Just because you saw a river?”
It remains one of his very best albums. Reprise Records thought they had a new hit maker, but they didn’t know who they were dealing with. Jack Elliott was never going to be pigeonholed, and was never going to spend his life in studios.
The next 20 years saw more of the traveling life for Jack Elliott: the road life, traveling from gig to gig, only an occasional record. “The Rolling Thunder Revue” was a respite, but it wasn’t until the last 15 years that the folk world seemed to remind itself that Jack Elliott was still around, still as good as ever, and, along with Woody’s son, Arlo, the last link to American’s working man poet. Elliott’s work began to receive more notice than it had in decades. His first studio album in 20 years, “South Court,” won a Grammy for Best Traditional Performance in 1995. “A Stranger Here” won Best Traditional Blues Album in 2009.
“There would be no Bob Dylan without Ramblin’ Jack,” Arlo Guthrie reminds us. “There wouldn’t be half the people that we all know and love. Jack lived it. Other people talk about it; Jack lived it.”
Aiyana Elliott, Jack’s daughter, knew that as well as anyone. Her father was an elusive figure even while her parents were still married, a shadow who showed up for a day or two and was gone again for months. An aspiring film maker, she had two reasons to make a documentary about her father: to tell his story and to actually get him to spend some time with her.
“I can’t remember ever having an actual conversation with my dad,” she says at the beginning of “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.”
Much of the film deals with her attempts to get her dad to answer questions. There is one uncomfortable scene where she tries to pin him down, and he talks about his broken taillights, his Hawaiian shirt — anything but their relationship, or lack thereof.
Ramblin’ Jack remains an elusive figure. Efforts to get him to sit down for even a phone interview proved fruitless — his record company doesn’t acknowledge E-mails.
If he wanders out on stage on September 30, strums a few notes, and begins his theme song, “I’ve done some hard traveling, I hope you knowed,” everything will be all right.
At the end of his commentary on “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack,” he muses, “Five mad wives, one old dog, 10 old trucks, three wore out guitars. Still ramblin.’ Wish I could settle down. Maybe when I’m 103, I will.”
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Thursday, September 30, 7 p.m. Folk musician and singer. $35. 609-955-5566 or www.thewarmemorial.com.