Ramblin' on my mind
Ramblin' Jack Elliot keeps the spirit of Woody Guthrie alive
Published November 2005
Old-time folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliot acquired his nickname from a propensity to meander verbally rather than, as one might suppose, from his employment as a troubadour. Legend has it that the mother of fellow folkie Odetta coined the title; Elliot lived up to the "Ramblin'" handle when I inquired whether this tale was apocryphal.
"It's true," he said. "See, I went to visit her. I went to see Odetta one day when she was about 19 years old. I wasn't much more'n the same age as her, just starting out. Woody brought me out to L.A. with him in a car. We were in a Model A Ford. There was a guy across the street from her that had a car too, it was a ..."
At this point, Elliot's explanation was mercifully interrupted by his call waiting; I didn't ask him to complete the saga once he returned to the line. Suffice it to say, most of Elliot's quotes herein are truncated, but expect many a monologue when you see him in concert.
Inevitably, Elliot's soliloquies lead back to the aforementioned, iconic Woody Guthrie, the most renowned folksinger in history and an early mentor to Elliot. A few years after hitting the traveling rodeo circuit as a teen-ager, the Brooklyn-born Elliott Charles Adnopoz, son of a Jewish doctor, hooked up and journeyed with Guthrie throughout the early '50s.
"My parents brought me to the rodeo when I was little," related Elliot, 74. "I never got over it and they always regretted it."
Despite exhortations from his father to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, Elliot remained at Guthrie's side until he was hospitalized with Huntington's Chorea in 1954. To this day, he obviously reveres the man.
"Woody was like a cross between Jesus and Will Rogers and Mother Maybelle Carter. Hmmm ... I never thought of that one before until just now," Elliot mused.
"Woody's influence on me was very profound," he continued. "I went around trying to sing and play guitar like him, and I did a pretty good imitation, so they tell me. Woody himself said, 'Jack sounds more like me than I do.' Woody had a lighthearted personality. He had kind of a simple country humor and he had a marvelous sense of words, being the great poet that he was. There was sort of an operatic sadness in his songs, although he described it in a lighthearted way, leaving it up to the listener to feel the emotions."
Out from under his ailing guru's wing, Elliot went on to become a celebrated, influential folksinger in his own right. In 1961, he visited Guthrie for the last time in his hospital room, where he met another young folkie named Bob Dylan. They became close friends for a spell, but eventually drifted apart.
"I think I had quite an impact on him," Elliot said. "He went around imitating me and I learned some things from Dylan, too. I copied a little bit of his style."
In 1999, the last time I interviewed Elliot, he'd bemoaned that Dylan never acknowledged his impact. So surely he was heartened by the recent release of Dylan's autobio, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," in which Dylan not only extends Elliot his propers, but admits he was so intimidated by the older man's expertise upon first encounter that he considered quitting folksinging, fearing he could never live up to Elliot's talents?
"Yeah, I read that and I wrote him a thank-you note" Elliot said. "I'm feeling better about him. I thought it was a wonderful book and he said a lot of nice things about everybody in it, all the musicians."
Between 1967 and 1994, Elliot never stepped foot into a recording studio, but his 1995 comeback album, "South Coast," netted a Grammy, and his last two albums 1998's "Friends Of Mine" and 1999's "The Long Ride," were also critical faves.
There've been no new albums since then, as Elliot prefers traveling the globe and playing concerts to working within what he called the "humiliating competitive environment" of the record label domain. He expects to release a new CD sometime this year, but don't look for a batch of original songs Elliot views himself as a folksinger in the classic sense; an interpreter, traditionalist, historian and yarn-spinner as opposed to a tunesmith.
"I've just been singin' the same old stuff," he said. "I don't consider myself a songwriter, I've written something like four songs in the last 40 years. That's okay though. Folks still seem to like the few I wrote."