If he'd had his druthers, Ramblin' Jack Elliott would've probably been born in Texas. Instead, he entered the world in Brooklyn, New York, a happy stroke of fate that eventually led to his becoming one of the primary enduring human threads of the contemporary American folk oeuvre. A friend and acolyte of Woody Guthrie, as well as a mentor and inspiration to Bob Dylan, Elliott is a living, breathing, singing piece of musical history.
The new Friends of Mine, the latest in a sparse catalogue of excellent releases over the last four decades, is a testament to Elliott's pervasive influence. On it, he's joined by Texas icons Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Nanci Griffith and Peter Rowan, along with folk queen Rosalie Sorrels, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo, John Prine, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. Included in the set are Texas-centric compositions penned by the likes of Joe Ely ("Me and Billy the Kid") and the late Townes Van Zandt ("Rex's Blues"), the latter to whom the disc is lovingly dedicated.
While Elliott confesses that he's "been on stage all my life, and I'm really tired of it," he still enjoys "the odd good show." Currently, he's on a jaunt through the Lone Star State as an honorary member of the Monsters of Folk tour. The show was mounted by Elliott's label, HighTone Records, in its grassroots effort to promote Friends of Mine. Along for the ride are Dave Alvin, Chris Smither and Tom Russell (who, like Elliott, is a onetime Brooklyn cowboy, though he recently moved to a ranch outside El Paso).
Ramblin' Jack Elliott's life is a tribute to the notion of creative visualization. Christened Elliott Charles Adnopoz, the singer likes to joke that he grew up "on a 45,000-acre ranch in the middle of Flatbush." Thanks to the B-movie singing cowboys on the cinema screens of his youth, Elliott's horizons were widened beyond the city skyline at an early age. By the time he was 14, he was on the move, eventually landing a job in Washington, D.C., with the J.E. Ranch Rodeo. It was led by Colonel Jim Eskew, a former Texan who was headquartered on a ranch in upstate New York.
"There was a clown in that show who played banjo and guitar, sang songs, and recited poems and old stories," Elliott recalls. "That was my first exposure to storytelling and folklore and folk music."
His parents eventually located their errant son at Eskew's upstate spread: "They came up and visited, and said they were proud of me that I was working on a job, and I didn't get into a life of crime or something. They told me if I wanted to stay I could stay, or if I liked to come home, I could come home."
But, in the end, it was yet another rodeo clown -- not his parents -- who convinced Elliott to stifle his wanderlust for the time being. "He was a very philosophical old buzzard," Elliott chuckles. "He gave me my first cigar -- it was a King Edward -- out behind the cook house, and said to me, 'Look, if you go home and finish up high school, you can be anything you want, including a cowboy. But if you just stay here, you'll be nothing but a cowboy. You think it's fun now, but it may not be so fun after a while.' "
Upon moving back home to Brooklyn, Jack started playing guitar and learning the songs of Woody Guthrie, who was living in the borough at the time. A friend of Elliott's who attended picking parties at the Guthrie household gave the young singer Guthrie's phone number, encouraging him to call his musical hero.
"He said, 'He's a friendly person, he'll probably invite you over.' It was a very unromantic way to meet somebody," Elliott notes. "I'd like to say I bumped into him on a boxcar changing trains in Omaha, Nebraska, in a snowstorm with a guitar."
As the story goes, Guthrie heard Ramblin' Jack play one of his songs and commented, "He sounds more like me than I do." So when his friend was stricken by the crippling symptoms of Huntington's disease, Elliott took up the folk-music torch lit by Woody and Leadbelly, traveling the country with his guitar, and meeting folks like Jack Kerouac and James Dean. In the late 1950s, Elliott moved to England, where he became the toast of the Continent's burgeoning folk scene. Busking in a British train station one day, Jack serenaded a group of schoolchildren on the platform across the track. Some 25 years later, he met one of those kids, Mick Jagger, who told him that the impromptu performance had inspired him to get his first guitar.
Returning to New York in 1961, Jack Elliott found the American folk revival in full bloom, and he became a beacon of sorts for the young musicians drawn to the movement. The early '60s saw the release of Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, two albums that sealed Elliott's reputation as an indispensable folk/blues repository. Around that time, he met his musical doppelganger, a scruffy young fellow recently arrived in Greenwich Village, who called himself Bob Dylan. Recalls Elliott: "My ex-wife was visiting from Europe, and I was showing her around the Village. And she was really irate about that kid, and kept saying, why didn't he get a haircut, why didn't he stop imitating me. She didn't see the humor of it at all. I thought she was being real dumb about it. 'You don't understand. He's a talented kid, honey, just learning his trade.'
"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.
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"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.