To ask Ramblin’ Jack Elliott a question is to tug at a snag in a sweater, only to see the yarn unfurl of its own volition, dropping in aimless loops, curling and snaking itself into a variegated fable. Every answer is a folk tale. Conversation is an exercise in free association, switchbacks, good-humored evasion, meanders, and box canyons. Jack Elliott does his talking without aid of a compass.
I have him on the phone. “We’re gettin’ ready to go to Oregon in the Mercedes,” he says. He’s at his home in rural California. The Mercedes is a ’75. He bought it very used and has had trouble with it. “…and I left the window open overnight on my side, because I was bein’ the passenger, and I was kind of tired of the rain, and it stopped rainin’, and I was enjoyin’ the fresh air, while Jan was drivin’ us home from our town, and so the sheepskin seat cover got totally soaked. So now I got the electric heater out of my motor home, with an extension cord from the house that runs into one of the back windows on the lee side of the car, it’s open about two inches to let the wire come in, and I’ve got this heater on the floor on an upside down aluminum pot so as to prevent any heat from gettin’ in the carpet and settin’ fire to the car, and it’s aimed up at the seat, from about oh, a foot away from it, from underneath the dashboard on the passenger side, ’cause I couldn’t get the damned sheepskin off, it’s locked on by the [he adopts a Colonel Klink accent, and begins to yell] Mercedes-Benz headrest, vitch iss heldt in place by two vertical chrome-plated, nine millimeter shtalks!”
I haven’t asked him a question yet. Already the yarn is coming loose.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Cliffs Notes version: Bob Dylan is Jack Elliott is Woody Guthrie. “He sounds more like me than I do,” goes the Woody Guthrie quote. They busked around the country. When Woody’s rambles ended in a decade-long terminal hospital stop, Jack took Woody’s walk, talk and music back to the road. Returning to Woody’s hospital room one day, Jack met a boy named Bob Dylan bedside. Taught him some things. Soon, Dylan was getting more gigs. Sometimes the marquee read, “Son of Jack Elliott.”
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Who’s Who version: Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Johnny Cash, Waylon and Willie, Sam Shepard, Jack Nicholson, Rod Stewart, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne, Greg Brown, Keith Richards, Allen Ginsberg, Ian Tyson, Robert Duvall, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Doc Watson. All listed as fans or registered acolytes. Mick Jagger left a Ramblin’ Jack show in England and bought his first guitar.
But I’m setting him up like a historical figure. He is very much alive. Very much contemporary. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, recent history version: South Coast, Grammy, 1995, Best Traditional Folk Album. Kerouac’s Last Dream, reissued 1997. And now, Friends Of Mine, partnering Jack with a telling array: Arlo Guthrie, Peter Rowan, Rosalie Sorrels, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Bob Weir. On songs written by Joe Ely, Gene Autry, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Garcia, Merle Travis. And Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
I’m supposed to find out what Jack’s got to say about Friends Of Mine. It’s not going to be easy.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, calling from a hotel in Minneapolis. His voice is tired, all stooped over. He’s in the midst of a racking cold. It’s late autumn, chill and raining. He wants some fresh air. “But there’s this musician-proof window, a suicide-proof window,” he grieves. “If you want air you push a button. They charge you for air.”
He’s in his 60s now. A good age, I suppose, for a folk singer. He’s been through the ’60s before, hitch-hiking, singing, riding around Woodstock on motorcycles with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But tonight he feels old. His hip is acting up. His guitar didn’t make the trip. His companion Jan had to stay behind. Tonight he’ll play the Cedar Cultural Center. I mention Peterbilts. He brightens.
He crosses the wooden floor of the Cedar Cultural Center with a slanted amble that bespeaks old injuries, helping himself along with a subtle hike of the elbows. When he stands backstage, it’s usually with his hat in hand, his hips hitched, his wiry legs planted in a stance amenable to forking a bronc or straddling the roll of a ship’s deck.
At 15, Elliott Charles Adnopoz took the subway out of Brooklyn and joined the rodeo. Tonight, in a ribbed and bibbed shirt, his neck nestled in a bandanna you could nap under, he looks every inch the seasoned hand. Young Master Adnopoz is lost to legend. In his place, a troubadour. The word is too grand, too affected, to suit the man, but the definition is spot-on. From Brooklyn to Britain, from Woody to Waylon, by horse, by ship, by truck, from the ’50s to the millennium, he has never stopped covering ground. Singing and moving.
And so now there he is, on the stage of the Cedar Cultural Center, sound-checking a borrowed guitar, playing to the folding chairs on a wet night in the state where Bob Dylan was born.
An assignment landed me on Marty Stuart’s tour bus in Petaluma, California, last year. Someone knocked on the door with a note. Ramblin’ Jack is here, wonders if he can come back. Name meant nothing to me. I got up to leave. “Oh man, no,” said Marty Stuart. “You don’t know who Ramblin’ Jack is? You’ve got to talk to him. He was Woody’s cat!”
Ramblin’ Jack boarded the bus, hat in hand. “Man, I got something to show you!” said Marty. He disappeared into the back of the bus. In a little bit, he returned with a videotape. An old dub of The Johnny Cash Show. He popped it in, and there was Ramblin’ Jack, twenty-some years younger, different glasses, different hat. Elliott scoffed at the hat, but you could see he was delighted.
Back when Stuart was playing in Cash’s band, Elliott joined them for a brief California tour. In addition to singing and playing, he traded off at the wheel of a Peterbilt with a curly-haired guy he remembers only as Wirehead. They were hauling Cash’s sound equipment. “We got on I-5 after our coffee, and I started drivin’. And he says to me as I was goin’ through the gears, ‘Hey Jack, you ever get one of these long wheel-base trucks off the road?’ And I said, ‘Why gee, no, I haven’t. How come you say that? Are they kind of squirrely?’ And he said, ‘Just keep it on the road,’ and he went in the sleeper.”
Marty has to leave for meet-and-greets. He introduces me to Jack first. Talk to this man, he says. For the next two hours, I am educated by way of parable and digression. Kindly and attentively, as though he were the one lucky to be there, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott talked of 13-speed split shifts, good horses, the trim of a schooner, and the feel of a stiff guitar pick. He told me about “Muleskinner Blues”, and later he joined Marty onstage and sang it. “What key do you do it in?” asked Marty, back on the bus, prior. “A or E, I can’t remember,” said Jack. “Don’t worry, we’ll find ya,” says Marty.