Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is the Holy Grail of folk music. His long career has been honored, studied and copied by artists since the ‘50s, with his most famous apprentice by far being a young Bob Dylan. The 88-year-old rambler will be passing through our town yet again for two special occasions, a showing of the new documentary, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: A Texas Ramble, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on September 5, and an intimate performance at the Mucky Duck the following evening.
The natural assumption is that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott got his name from moving from town to town sharing songs, but it was actually his gift of gab that earned him the title. Story goes that fellow folk singer Odetta’s mother gave him the title after he paid her daughter a visit in their home. It’s his unique and powerful ability to tell a good story that has made him a living legend, and one of the few remaining links to the ultimate storyteller and rambler, Woody Guthrie.
His life path was seemingly set up for him before he was born in Brooklyn as Elliott Charles Adnopoz. “They wanted me to be a doctor like daddy, and I never wanted that," says Elliott. "I was very certain about that one thing; I wanted to be either a cowboy, or a sailor, or a trucker.” All realms he has certainly dabbled in to say the least.
Elliott was hell bent on chasing his cowboy dreams, and just brave enough to give it a shot. The earliest seeds of cowboy fantasies were planted when a young Elliott visited the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. Feeding off these experiences and fanning the flames by consuming Will James’ novels about cowboy life, a young Elliott decided to run away from home to work on a ranch. His parents eventually got him back after the owner of the ranch recognized him from a picture in the newspaper, but his dream of rambling around the country could never be squashed.
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From Pete Seeger to the Rolling Stones, scratch the surface of influences of almost any big name artist and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s name is sure to appear, with many considering him a sort of father figure. “Well it makes me feel kinda old, but then again I just discovered last week that I am old. I celebrate my birthday for the entire month of August but I’m really getting tired of that. I’ve got arthritis from singing the 'Arthritis Blues' one too many times.”
He has dedicated his life to sharing stories with the world, hardly ever slowing down. “I’m really tired of airports and motels. It’s really getting me down. I’m about wore. I’m not tired of performing, singing or telling stories, because I get most of my energy from the audience. They give me more energy than I’m putting out, it kind of recharges my battery.”
Audiences have kept him charged for more than six decades now and though many have tried, keeping up with Elliott has proven to be no easy feat. “Well people walk up to me on the street and they say, ‘are you ramblin?’ and I say ‘no, I’m trying to quit!’,” laughs Elliott. The artist even admits the challenge of documenting his own history, “I try to sit there and write things with the typewriter but most of the stories end up being like a grocery list.”
Most recently his old friends, and Houstonians, Bruce Bryant and Dee Brown completed a long running project documenting Elliott's travels through Texas from 1982 to 2018. “I have to be honest, we don’t have any real good reason why it’s taken us this long other than that you can’t rush some things or some people,” explains filmmaker Bryant.
When asked about possibly being the first to keep up with his old friend, Bryant admits, “Well we didn’t. You can’t. The best you can do is to pedal as fast as you can and hope that you can catch him here and there and get enough material.”
Their hundreds of hours of footage and interviews will be housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas campus. “If people want to listen to a full ramble, they think they can handle it, then they’ll be able to. We wanted that to be saved for history,” says Bryant. The film will be shown for the first time here in Houston and then in Austin on the University of Texas campus.
“This is not a full ramble, because very few people could handle a full ramble; but we get up there, it’s a half ramble. I think if people are getting certified to become a certified rambler they can think of this as a training film,” says Bryant.
The film captures Elliott driving through small Texas town side streets, working on the Historic Elissa in Galveston, visiting old Texas buddies like Jerry Jeff Walker, performing at the legendary Anderson Fair and, of course, telling stories.
It features interviews with artists who have come to know and love Elliott, some of whom are no longer with us, making their presence on screen even more powerful. “Jack has a real special place in his heart for Texas and I think he always has and always will. He is a Texan. He’s as much a Texan as a lot of people,” says Bryant.
Bryant explains the magical allure, which has driven so many to chase this shooting star, “It’s like we are ramblin’ through him. He’s living all these adventures for us that we would like to be a part of, but we just don’t have it in us to ramble the way he does.”
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Aiyana Elliott, Elliott’s daughter, released a documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, where she takes audiences on her quest to understand her father and, in doing so, tells his life story. Elliott appeared in the Anderson Fair documentary, For The Sake of the Song, also a film by Bryant. Most recently Elliott was featured in the documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.
“I remember that I had a very fine time on the trip,” says Elliott of the famous Dylan tour. “We played 31 concerts in 35 days traveling by bus. In fact, I got to drive the bus one time and I got to drive the semi one time. I was really thrilled because I enjoy driving trucks.”
When asked if the experience helped him get it out of his system he says, “No I never got it out of my system. I haven't driven trucks enough to get it out of my system but when I’ve been driving trucks the owner always tells me, ‘Now Jack, promise me you’ll never buy a truck.’”
Ramblin' Jack Elliott will be part of a post-film conversation Thursday, September 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, film starts at 7 p.m. $10-15; and will perform Friday, September 6 at McGonigels Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, doors at 7 p.m. $35