Reason to Roam

At 67, Ramblin' Jack Elliott reclaims -- temporarily -- the urge to wander

"He was doing what I did," Elliott adds. "I used to imitate Woody Guthrie to where people were pissed off at me too. All of Woody's old friends and fans would go, 'Oh, you think you're Woody Guthrie or something? I know Woody, you're not Woody. Who the hell are you anyway? Find your own goddamn self!' "

But where many of the Village folk purists thought of Dylan as little more than a pushy, overzealous youngster, Elliott befriended and promoted the singer/songwriter. In 1975, Dylan was able to return the favor by including Ramblin' Jack in the original Monsters of Folk tour: the Rolling Thunder Review. When asked about today's folk music, Elliott says, "I don't think there is any. I still like Bob Dylan, of course."

In fact, he finds Dylan's latest disc, Time Out of Mind, "pretty hip. It's deep and thoughtful." Interestingly, "Bleeker Street Blues," the sole new Elliott original on Friends of Mine, is a song for his onetime acolyte, written after Dylan's bout with heart disease last spring.

Now 67, Elliott lives in Northern California and confesses that his days of roaming the world are mostly behind him. "I'm beginning to hate traveling," he admits. "You know how everybody thinks I love traveling; well, I did want to see the world, and I'm glad I saw it when I did before they went out and ruined it completely. There's hardly any place worth looking at anymore, except maybe Iceland and the South Pole. They're even trying to ruin the South Pole now."

But in the Monsters of Folk Tour, Elliot seems to have found a good excuse to hit the road. "I'm looking forward to this group," he says. "[It] oughta be a crazy bunch. I think we'll have a great time."

If anyone deserves to rest on his laurels, it's Jack Elliott. For in the long tradition of folk music, he's a rarity -- an early imitator who's matured over the years into a genuine American original. And he's still forging new chapters in his incredible life story.

"I'd like to write some more songs, actually," he explains. "Bob came along and started to do like Woody did, and write songs, but I never really followed through on that. I just kind of learned to sing some of Woody's songs, and just did them exactly like Woody did -- imitated him. I don't [do that] anymore. I don't even know if I'm that capable of doing a Woody Guthrie imitation as well as I used to.

"But who needs that? You've got to express yourself in the way you see it. You don't always see it in the same way that somebody else did."

And that's still what great folk music is all about -- even now.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Tom Russell, Chris Smither and Dave Alvin perform at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at McGonigel's Muck Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $20. For info, call 528-5999.

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