Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the October 25,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Thirty-Five Years of Princeton Folk Music
There’s a mesmerizing quality to folksinger Ramblin’
Jack Elliott’s performances. In the late 1950s, a young Mick Jagger
was inspired to buy his first guitar, and did so, the day after
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sing and tell stories on a train platform in
More recently, about 50 of us — including Pete Seeger — were
spellbound when Elliott performed at the North American Folk Alliance
Conference in 1996, in Washington, D.C. Elliott performed in a small
ballroom at a hotel in Washington, having performed to a larger crowd
at lunch that day. He swaggered up to the microphone in his cowboy
boots, stood there and held the audience’s complete attention for
the better part of an hour, playing simple riffs on his guitar,
everyone in with his enunciation and drawling singing style, and
a few funny stories in between tunes.
To be sure, Elliott is a master showman and a veteran of thousands
of performances in all sorts of venues around the world including
one he did in Colorado in the early 1970s, by phone. He was in western
Nebraska, running more than a few hours late, and the venue was in
Denver, so he phoned it in.
"I called it in and sang a bunch of songs over the telephone,
and I could hear a bunch of people laughing and clapping in the
To Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, doing a show is as natural as waking up
in the morning and going to sleep every night.
Elliott headlines the 35th anniversary show for the Princeton Folk
Music Society, with Les Sampou and Debby McClatchy, on Saturday,
27, at 8 p.m. at Nassau Presbyterian Church.
Saturday’s day-long celebration, which includes an afternoon
show by Mae Robertson and Eric Garrison, marks the 35th anniversary
of the Princeton-based non-profit folk music preservation,
and education group. McClatchy’s songs should satisfy the
in the audience, while Sampou’s original blues and ballads should
make the contemporary folk fans happy. The afternoon show is designed
to please children and families, and Elliott’s headline act is bound
to please folk traditionalists, blues fans, and fans of country music,
which is often called "the white man’s blues."
"My live shows always incorporate some country, some traditional
folk songs, and some blues," Elliott explains from his home in
rural California, about 30 miles outside San Francisco. Asked about
his songwriting, Elliott admits, "I’ve written about four songs
over the last 40 years. I’d like to say I’ve written more songs, and
I could have earned more money as a songwriter, but as it is, I have
to keep flying on these airplanes all the time."
"I’m supposed to be called `Ramblin’ Jack,’ and I really don’t
like rambling so much anymore," the 68-year-old folksinger
As he speaks by phone, he isn’t looking forward to his upcoming tour.
The travel agent has given him middle seats on almost all of his
and he is none too happy about that. "I’m not a licensed pilot,
but I’ve flown a few small planes. I like flying, but I don’t
like being in a big plane when someone else is flying," he
Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has
one of the last living links — along with Pete Seeger — to
Woody Guthrie’s wandering folksinger tradition. Guthrie died in
1967, from Huntington’s disease, but for much of the late 1940s and
’50s, Elliott traveled a lot with Guthrie, who sometimes also traveled
with Seeger and Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, before
his death in 1949.
Elliott was born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn, in 1931, the son of
a Jewish doctor father and a high school English teacher mother. As
a boy, he became fascinated with the American West and cowboys. A
friend taught him to strum a few chords on a guitar, and after some
formal higher education at the University of Connecticut and Adelphi
College in New York, he dropped out to pursue the life of the
folksinger, specializing in cowboy songs.
"I was supposed to be a doctor," he explains, "but I just
wanted to be a cowboy. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the
past or their religion, or anything that reminded me of my
he adds, "and they were good people, God bless ’em, I just felt
like their lifestyle and their attitudes were a little too
for a free soul. I think I must have been accidentally born in the
Coming from a middle class Jewish background, his
were naturally disappointed when they saw young Elliott was not
about getting an education. Visions of Allan Sherman’s album, "My
Son, The Folksinger" came to this reporter’s mind, and when told
this, Elliott laughs.
"Success is always nice for people who wanted respectability and
stuff, and I finally got that after a few of the Newport Folk
in the 1960s," he explains. So at least his parents were able
to see their son the folksinger was making some progress in his chosen
field. "My parents and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye about the
world. They wanted me to go to college and be a doctor, and I
didn’t fulfill that dream for them."
However, by 1951, the young Elliott became acquainted with Guthrie,
and he got his higher education from hanging around with the likes
of Guthrie and Seeger. "Woody was like my savior, Woody and his
wonderful, lovely wife," Elliott recalls, adding that he lived
with the Guthrie family for a time in the 1950s at their house in
Brooklyn. Asked what kernels of advice Guthrie gave him, Elliott has
to pause and think.
"From him, I learned how not to play the guitar, how not to get
too fancy, how to just stay on the bass strings when you’re playing
with another instrument," he recalls, "and not to get all
fancy and show-offy. I admit, I admire a lot of my fellow musicians
who play these incredibly intricate passages on the guitar that I
couldn’t hope to duplicate. In my live shows, I just sort of play
rhythm with the guitar and tap my foot."
Recently, Elliott’s daughter, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Aiyanna
has received across-the-board rave reviews for her independent film,
"The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack." Even though it doesn’t paint
a particularly flattering picture of Elliott as a father, it does
capture the essence of who Elliott is, he argues.
"Have you seen the movie?" he asks, excitedly. I hadn’t, but
I have read that the film paints a picture of him as an absentee
"Yes, I wasn’t around much, and I did have to travel a lot,"
he says, "but she never really makes it clear in the movie that
she and her mother were out of touch, too. She preserves that feeling
of angst and carries it right through the movie.
"She does a great job of reportage and showing my career from
a kid on up, and the rodeos and other things I liked to do, but on
the point of being a disappointed daughter, it’s a little misleading.
She doesn’t explain the fact that she and her mother had run off with
this hippie guy, and that’s why I wasn’t around much. They took off,
stole the VW bus, and disappeared for about two years, and in spite
of that I was able to cross paths with them and I tried to be a
daddy in that period."
"And then we got back together for the sake of our daughter and
tried to live as husband and wife for a year, but married life did
not work out, so I instigated a divorce and still wanting to keep
on the friendly side of my daughter and my wife, I would visit them
when they lived in Santa Cruz," he explains. By that point, he
was also based in northern California, when he wasn’t on the road,
that is, which was most of the time, since that was his job, to stay
on the road and play shows for people, he adds.
"But she’s gotten tremendous reviews and I’m very proud of
he says. "But in spite of all the great press, it’s not getting
the big crowds in. I myself went on the road and did eight and nine
interviews a day for 18 of the 30 days that I was on that promotional
trip. But in spite of all the great press, the people are not flocking
to see it," he complains.
This might have something to do with the fact that most 20 and
fans of today’s popular music, when told of the film, are likely to
say `Ramblin Jack who?’ After all, folk music and blues are almost
absent from commercial radio and Hollywood film.
Elliott won a 1996 Grammy Award for his brilliantly recorded
Coast" album for Red House Records, yet he still records for a
variety of small, independent labels. His other recent albums include
"The Long Ride" and "Friends of Mine," the latter
pairing him with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, and the
Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. Both "The Long Ride" and
of Mine" were produced by Roy Rogers for Hightone Records. The
soundtrack to "The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack" film was released
earlier this year on the Vanguard label.
Asked what Rogers — who produced a string of Grammy-winning albums
for John Lee Hooker in the early 1990s — brings to the recording
console, Elliott is frank.
"I don’t like anything about recording, except that I have a good
guy, in Roy, to work with," he relates. "I call him `da
He’s very professional and sometimes a little bit too hard driving,
but he knows how to get the best out of me."
"Even when I think I’m exhausted and can’t do another take, and
I thought I did it well enough, he’ll tell me, `First of all, you
sang that one word flat again,’ on that song, `and secondly, I think
you’ve got another take of that song in you.’"
Not surprisingly for this veteran road troubadour, storyteller, and
master showman, he adds, "My favorite thing to do is to play live
in front of an audience."
— Richard J. Skelly
Christ Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, 609-799-0944. Mae
and Eric Garrison present the family concert. $5; children $3; or
$12 per family. Saturday, October 28, 2 p.m.
Nassau Street, 609-799-0944. The 35th anniversary gala featurese
Jack Elliott, Debby McClatchy, and Les Sampou. $18. Saturday,
28, 8 p.m.
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