Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who rolls into the Houston exurbs for two shows this week, is truly a dying breed, one of the last mastodons looking down at a herd of cattle and thinking, "Look at those frail, wimpy things."
Staccato stories from a free-wheeling life roll out of the man, now 79, as he bounces from tangent to tangent: Lost guitars, actress girlfriends, Taos, the Alps, Utah Phillips, rodeos, Woody Guthrie, bluegrass and banjo players, hitchhiking trips to New Orleans, Kris Kristofferson, dancing around a banana tree with a naked ballerina. All are told with wit, verve, and a faint sense of lost youth.
Elliott's stories, and his life, bridge virtually the entire span of folk music and what has come to be called Americana. He rode trains with Woody Guthrie, was a role model for Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, shared stages with everyone from Odetta to Fred Neil – and is ready to do it some more.
"I can't go at it like I used to, of course," says the Brooklyn native, who ran away at 15 to join a traveling rodeo. "But I'm still doing about 50 shows a year."
Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in August 1931, the unruly teenager encountered his first cowboy singer on that brief stint with the rodeo and, upon returning home, quickly learned the rudiments of guitar and began busking. Elliott would eventually work his way into Woody Guthrie's circle, where he says his real musical education began.
"Woody loved doing it," he recalls, "but what impressed me most was that Woody did it for the right reasons. That's one of the main lessons I got from Woody."
Elliott eventually followed Guthrie to New York City, where he ran in a circle that included such icons as Pete Seeger and Dave von Ronk. When Guthrie fell ill with Huntington's disease, Elliott became a musical mentor to Guthrie's son Arlo, of "Alice's Restaurant" fame – you know, "the mother rapers and the father rapers sittin' there on the bench." Elliott's classic 1968 album Young Brigham includes a gentle Guthrie-esque lullaby titled "Good Night Little Arlo."
"Woody got to where he couldn't play anymore, and Arlo was so inquisitive about his dad's music," Elliott recalls. "And my way of playing and singing was very much in Woody's style, so Arlo and I spent a lot of time together picking and singing and talking."
Another youngster deeply affected by Elliott was Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, better known as Bob Dylan. When the young musician first came to New York, people often referred to him as Elliott's son because he so patterned his early vocal style after Elliott's.
"Yeah, I even used to say things like 'This song is by my son, Bob,'" chuckles Elliott. "I saw Bob a few years ago and I'd just come from playing at the Bob Dylan Day thing they have at the high school there in Hibbing. They invite me every year. And Bob says [imitates Dylan's voice] 'Bob Dylan Day. What's that?'"
Elliott has nothing but high praise for Guy Clark, with whom he'll share the stage in Conroe, and among his favorite of the class of songwriters Elliott estimates to include Townes van Zandt, Richard Dobson, and a select few others.
"Ironically, I just cut a song for a Guy Clark tribute album that's in the works," he says. "The song's called 'The Guitar,' and it's about a guy going in a pawn shop and pulling down a guitar and suddenly he's just brilliant, playing better than he even knows how. And in the end he sees the case and it has his name on it.
"The really ironic thing is that I had a guitar that got stolen and I got it back 23 years later, just like in that song. It was a Gretsch Rancher," recalls Elliott. "I actually once had that guitar strapped to the back of a Vespa motor scooter and went over the Alps in a snow storm with it, so it was already a little road-weary. It wasn't the greatest guitar ever, but we had a history."
A troubadour's troubadour, Elliott goes on to detail his respect for Clark.
"He is one of the finest word crafters. Not a single word out of place or wasted in his songs," he marvels like a true fan.
"I went to see Guy play at the Newport Folk Festival years ago, and he had hurt his foot real bad, but he insisted on standing for his show. So the doctor flared out the top of his cowboy boot and filled it with ice, and Guy went out there with a boot full of ice and played the gig. Talk about tough."
Elliott also has a deep fondness for Clark's running buddy, Townes van Zandt.
"One of the last times I saw Townes I ran into him in Nashville," says Elliott, "and I told him how much I loved his song 'Pancho and Lefty.' I'd tried to learn that song and work it into my show four or five times and just never could get it right, and I told Townes that. And Townes – he was pretty drunk at the time – said 'Hell, Jack, I wrote that damn song and I can't play it either.'"
Consummate songwriter Mickey Newbury, another of Houston's favorite sons, also had an affinity for Elliott.
"I went to meet Mickey in a room he had in the basement of the Nashville Ramada Inn, and we sat around one afternoon doin' a little drinkin'. He asked me to play '912 Greens,' which is about fifteen minutes long," chuckles Elliott. "Well, after a couple of verses, I walked out the door still playing, got on the elevator, walked out through the lobby to the stairs and back down to his room.
"When I walked in the door, I was still playing and I must've been somewhere like the seventh verse. Mickey loved it so much, when I finished he took off his boots, these beautiful handmade black cowboy boots, and tried to give them to me.
"They were great and they were just about my size, but I took them off and told him I couldn't accept a gift like that. And that's when he told me Dennis Hopper had given them to him. And then Mickey let me drive his great big shiny black Cadillac DeVille."
A very upbeat, breezy fellow, Elliott actually turned a bit dark when asked if he ever talks to Bob Dylan anymore.
"Nah. I don't think Bob has any friends. I hear he talks to God, but I doubt if God actually talks back."
"I do know this, though," he adds. "The last time I went to see him, I couldn't understand a single word of what he was singing," asserts Elliott. "If I ever get to talk to him again, I'm going to recommend he get a new sound man."
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