Elliott, Ramblin’ Jack
Elliott, Ramblin’ Jack
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Although he never made it big, folk troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliot endured as one of the most colorful characters in American music. He left New York as a child hoping to become a rodeo cowboy; learned his craft from Woody Guthrie, touring with the folk legend during his later years; was read the manuscript for On the Road by Jack Kerouac himself; passed on Guthrie’s style to Bob Dylan and influenced musicians such as Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt; and traveled, recorded, and performed with few interruptions for over half a century. However, the title of “Ramblin’ Jack” was awarded to Elliot for his talk, not his wanderings. Known for his rambling through a mosaic of stories before arriving at the point, Elliott admits, as quoted by Magnet magazine’s John El-sasser, “I tend to ramble. An interview can last two hours and you won’t get any information.” An icon on the underground folk scene since the 1950s, Elliot finally received his due recognition in the 1990s. In 1996, he won a Grammy Award for 1995’s South Coast and in 1998, received a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.
Elliot was born Elliott Charles Adnopoz on August 1, 1931, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a prominent Jewish doctor and surgeon. His parents hoped that one day, Elliott, too, would follow in his father’s footsteps. But Elliott dreamed of a different sort of life. Falling in love with westerns as a boy, he regularly attended rodeos—his first at Madison Square Garden to watch Gene Autry and the blacklit bulls—read books by cowboy novelist Will James, and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. To Elliott, all this seemed far more exciting than practicing medicine.
Thus, at the age of 14, Elliott ran away from home and hitched a ride to Washington, D.C., where he saw a poster advertising Colonel Jim Eskew’s traveling rodeo. Though an unlikely candidate for an aspiring cowboy, Elliott received a job offer to work for two dollars a day as a groom hand. He also learned how to play guitar and some banjo from the rodeo clowns. However, his stint with the rodeo was short-lived, as his parents were desperately trying to locate their son. After three months, they finally caught up with Elliott, persuading him to return to Brooklyn to finish high school.
Elliott graduated, but he continued to fantasize about the cowboy life. In between two failed attempts at college, he began to play guitar and sing under various guises around New York’s Greenwich Village. Then, in 1950, Elliott experienced something that would change his life forever and provide him a musical focus. One night, while listening to the Oscar Brand radio program, he heard a tune played by legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie. Intent on learning firsthand from the
For the Record…
Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz on August 1, 1931, in Brooklyn, NY; son of a prominent Jewish doctor and surgeon.
Heard Woody Guthrie on the radio in 1950 and moved into the folk legend’s house in 1951, where he lived for two years; moved to England, where he became a hit, 1955; recorded debut album Woody Guthrie’s Blues, 1957; returned to New York’s burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village, taught Guthrie’s technique to Bob Dylan, 1961; toured with Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Review,” 1975-76; released Kerouac’s Last Dream, 1981; released South Coast, 1995; subject of a documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, directed and produced by daughter Aiyana Elliott, 2000.
Awards: Grammy Award, Bay Area Music Award, both for South Coast, 1996; National Medal of Arts, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Vanguard Records, 2700 Pennsylvania Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404, phone: (310) 829-9355, fax: (310)315-9996. Website—Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Official website: http://www.ramblinjack.com.
plain-spoken singer, Elliott visited Guthrie, who at the time was recovering from a ruptured appendix, at his home in February of 1951.
Elliott ended up living in the Guthrie house for two years. During this time, he absorbed Guthrie’s style of playing guitar and singing, all the while realizing that he could never actually become Woody Guthrie. “I used to look over his shoulder as he’d sit there at the typewriter and knock off these songs just as quick as you could blink,” recalled Elliott in an interview with Chris Flischer for the Worcester Phoenix. “GGG And each time they’d be perfect and needed no correcting. So after watching that I realized there was no way I was gonna top that. And I decided it would be better if I just did what I did best and find the songs and interpret them the way they suited me.”
For the next five years, Elliott traveled and performed with Guthrie, building an impressive and varied list of friendships wherever he landed. In Greenwich Village in 1953, for example, he enjoyed relationships with Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Helen Parker, and Jack Kerouac. In 1954, Elliott and Guthrie traveled to Topanga Canyon, California, then a hangout for left-wing artists and intellectuals. Here, Elliott met a banjo picker from Oregon named Derroll Adams. They became close friends and performing partners.
In the meantime, Elliott had fallen in love with a young actress named June Hammerstein, who became the first of his five wives in 1954. Hammerstein, who wanted to relocate to Europe, soon persuaded Elliott to move to England. At the time, the British popular music scene was filled with a style of music known as skiffle, basically jazzed-up renditions of American folk songs. After his arrival in 1955, Elliott soon became the toast of England with a string of hits and toured throughout Europe with Adams, often performing the songs of Guthrie. While overseas, Elliott also recorded his first album on his own, Woody Guthrie’s Blues, released by the Topic label in 1957.
Growing weary of the pressures of constant performing, Elliott returned to the United States in 1958. However, finding his music largely ignored in America, he returned to England in 1959. This time around, he toured alongside the Weavers, accompanied Pete Seeger, performed with bluesman Jesse Fuller, and toured Europe with author Herb Greer. Meanwhile, the youth of America was beginning to warm up to folk music. Thus, in 1961, he returned home again. Back in New York City, Elliott quickly became a legend among the burgeoning folk crowd in Greenwich Village.
Considered the best flat-picking folk guitarist around, Elliott, who balked at the commercialization of folk music, preferred to remain a pure folk artist. He felt that maintaining Guthrie’s style was especially important as Guthrie was now suffering from Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary disease which eventually leads to a loss of control over one’s body. While visiting the ailing folk musician in the hospital, Elliott met another Guthrie follower—Bob Dylan. Because Guthrie was too ill to take on Dylan as an apprentice, Elliott gladly accepted the role. Before long, just as Elliott had at one time been identified as “a poor man’s Guthrie,” Dylan, likewise, was dubbed “a poor man’s Elliott.” And eventually, Dylan made Elliott’s style more popular than Elliott had himself.
“There were a lot of people who tried to make me angry about that,” Elliott told Randy Sue Coburn in Esquire magazine. ‘‘‘He’s stealing the wind out of your sails, ‘ they’d tell me, but I still had plenty of wind left. And besides, I was flattered. Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn’t teach me. He just said,‘If you want to learn something, just steal it—that’s the way I learned from Lead Belly.”
Nonetheless, while Elliott and Dylan started out honing their skills under Guthrie’s influences, both gradually uncovered their own individual styles. “When we see Jack on stage now he is Jack and no longer an imitation of Woody,” Pete Seeger told Sing Out ’s Bill Yaran in 1965, applauding the manifestation of Elliott, in particular. “He’s proven that it’s possible to learn an idiom and a style one was not born to, but came to love later in life, and he’s proven also that you can emerge from this period of imitation into being genuinely creative on your own; something that needs proving in this modern world when there’s so much confusion among young people as to the value of imitating between the value of just being yourself.”
Throughout the early- to mid-1960s, Elliott spent most of his time in the recording studio or on the road. He performed with an array of musicians during these years, among them Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs, Lou Reed, and Tim Hardin. Other singers and songwriters who saw him live or owned his records also looked to Elliott for inspiration. In Great Britain, musicians such as Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Rod Stewart tributed Elliott’s style. Similarly, in America, groups like the Grateful Dead and the Band viewed Elliott as a significant influence.
In 1967, Elliott landed a two-record, major label contract with Warner Brothers, which intended to turn the underground icon into a mainstream star. The company recorded the performer with electrified rockabilly bands and used Indian tabla overdubs and splices of his spoken tales—a major departure from Elliott’s simple, straight-forward approach. Such effects increasingly made their way onto Elliott’s recordings, even without his consultation. Disgusted with the loss of control over his own career, Elliott terminated his relationship with Warner. A sore spot remains with Elliott over the ordeal; he receives no money from Warner for sale of the albums, which he still autographs for fans.
Regaining his identity, Elliott returned to the now-deflating folk scene of the early 1970s. Even old friends like Bob Dylan, now an international rock star, had little time to collaborate on folk music. Consequently, Elliott kept busy working clubs and appeared on television, including the popular Johnny Cash Show. Around 1975, though, psychedelic music and self-indulgence began to fall out of fashion, and many once again sought out the simpler arrangements of the folk style. As musician Patti Smith described in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, written by Robert Shelton: “People just started turning up in the Village. It happened very fast. Jack Elliott was around—everybody was around. Then one night, Bob [Dylan] started going up on stage, jamming with these people.”
These jam sessions soon led Dylan, who had just come off a major tour and was hungry for more intimate settings, to assemble an alternating group of colleagues dubbed “The Rolling Thunder Review.” As a participant, Elliott played alongside Bob Neuwirth, Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Lightfoot, T-Bone Burnett, Arlo Guthrie (Woody’s son), and Robbie Robertson. For the first time, Elliott found himself traveling first-class, even allowing his guitar to be tuned for him. In 1976, the Rolling Thunder Review set out on a second tour, this time to play before stadium-sized audiences. However, the troupe members lost much of their original momentum with the increased popularity and the group soon disbanded.
Back on his own, Elliott continued touring for the remainder of the decade. He also confronted his problems with alcohol and drugs. “It was a very dangerous threat to my career,” he admitted, as quoted by Robbie Woliver in Bringing It All Back Home: 25 Years of American Music at Folk City. “I had to deal with it as an enemy.” Seeking out a life outside the music business, Elliott, in 1980, decided to pursue another long-held dream—the restoration of old sailing ships. He first became interested in the trade when, back in 1954, he signed on to resurrect the Balclutha, a ship built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1886, docked in the San Francisco Bay. Years later, in 1969, he joined Don McLean and others on Pete Seeger’s boat Clearwater for a sailing tour of the Hudson River Valley.
That same year, a group of musicians met in Germany to produce a compilation album entitled Folk Friends. Afterwards, Elliott stuck around to record his first new album in nearly 13 years. Kerouac’s Last Dream, released in 1981, presented Elliott as masterful as ever and included the track “Cup of Coffee,” a “truckin”’ tune he had written decades before in the backseat of Johnny Cash’s car. The song later received some success when it appeared on Cash’s album Everybody Loves a Nut.
Elliott, however, maintained a lower profile throughout the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. Then, in 1995, Elliott was thrust back into the spotlight with the release of a new studio album entitled South Coast, recorded upon the persuasion of friend Bob Feldman. In 1996, Elliott won his first Grammy Award, as well as a Bay Area Music Award, for South Coast. Two years later, in 1998, President Bill Clinton honored Elliott with a National Medal of Arts.
The renewed attention subsequently prompted the folk singer’s daughter, filmmaker Aiyana Elliott, born in 1969 during Elliott’s marriage to ex-wife Martha, to direct, produce, and co-write a documentary about her father’s life and travels. Released in theaters in the summer of 2000, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack earned a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film included interviews with friends of Elliott such as Kris Kristofferson, Odetta, and Seeger, as well as old footage Aiyana, who never really knew her often-absent father growing up, used from home movies of Elliott growing up in Brooklyn to television and stage appearances. Now in his seventies and living in Northern California, Elliott continues to perform approximately 50 to 60 shows per year.
Woody Guthrie’s Blues, Topic, 1957.
Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: The Rambling Boys, Topic, 1957.
Jack Takes the Floor, Topic, 1958.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in London, Monitor, 1959.
Rambling Jack Elliott Sings Songs by Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers, Monitor, 1960.
Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie, Prestige, 1960.
Songs to Grow on by Woody Guthrie, Sung by Jack Elliott, Folkways, 1961.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott, Prestige, 1961.
Jack Elliott at the Second Fret —Recorded Live, Prestige, 1962.
Jack Elliott: Country Style, Prestige, 1962.
Jack Elliott: Talking Woody Guthrie, Topic, 1963.
Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: Roll On Buddy, Topic, 1963.
Jack Elliott: Muleskinner, Topic, 1964.
Jack Elliott, Vanguard, 1964.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott: Young Brigham, Reprise, 1967.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Bill Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks, Reprise, 1967.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: Folkland Songs, Joker, 1969.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: Riding in Folkland, Joker, 1969.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: America, Joker, 1975.
The Essential Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Vanguard, 1976.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Kerouac’s Last Dream, Folk Freak, 1981.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Hard Travelin’, Fantasy, 1989.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott: Talking Dust Bowl, Big Beat, 1989.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Spider John Koerner, U. Utah Phillips: Legends of Folk, Red House, 1990.
Jack Elliott Plus/Jack Elliott, Vanguard, 1990.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Sings Woody Guthrie & Jimmie Rodgers/Cowboy Songs, Monitor, 1994.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott: Me & Bobby McGee, Rounder, 1995.
Ramblin’Jack Elliott: South Coast, Red House, 1995.
Jack Elliott: Ramblin’ Jack, Topic, 1995.
Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: Selection of America, Gold Sound, 1996.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Friends of Mine, Hightone, 1998.
Jack Elliott & Derroll Adams: America, A World of Music, 1998.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Live in Japan, Vivid/Bellwood, 1998.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: The Long Ride, Hightone, 1999.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Country Style/Live, Fantasy, 1999.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: Early Sessions, Tradition/Rykodisc, 1999.
The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack (soundtrack), Vanguard, 2000.
Shelton, Robert, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Ballantine Books, 1987.
Woliver, Robbie, Bringing It All Back Home: 25 Years of American Music at Folk City, Pantheon Books, 1986.
Billboard, February 14, 1998; November 25, 2000.
Boston Globe, March 19, 1998; August 25, 2000.
Esquire, April 1984.
Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1996; April 13, 1998; August 27, 2000.
Magnet, November/December 2000.
People, March 30, 1998; September 11, 2000.
Sing Out, November 1965.
Village Voice, April 7, 1998.
Washington Post, October 15, 1999; September 15, 2000.
Worcester Phoenix, May 2, 1997.
Illustrated Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Discography, http://www.wirz.de/music/elliodsc.htm(March 15, 2001).
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Official Website, http://www.ramblinjack.com (March 15, 2001).