Jack Elliott is an extremely rare individual. As troubadours go, he is a legend. As a human being, he is an enigma. He represents many things to many people, but most of all he stands as one of the last of a unique breed of American male—the professional rambler.
“He’s a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction”
“The Pilgrim—Chapter 33”
“One of the finest pickers and entertainers I have ever heard on any stage.”
The Incomplete Folksinger
“He has been more places and seen more people doing more things than any ten men I know. He knows more about sailing and trucking and horses and cowboys (and girls) and this whole country than the combined cabinets of all the Presidents of the United States, and can tell you about anything and everywhere in the shortest or longest space of time depending on how he feels and who he’s with.”
Born of New York Jewish origin in 1931, Elliott Charles Adnopoz got “hung up” on cowboys at the age of nine. An early infatuation with Gene Autry led him to vow to become a singing cowboy from Brooklyn. Naturally enough, the name Adnopoz had to go. After settling on the name Jack Elliott, the fourteen year old boy began forging his new identity as he joined a traveling rodeo. Since then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has become one of America’s essential folksinger, picker, entertainers. He has rambled through this land so extensively, met so many characters, and absorbed so much music that he is himself a cross-section of Americana. He is a museum piece and a folksinger’s folksinger.
A few weeks back, Jack Elliott dropped into Austin to play three nights at Castle Creek. I telephoned him while he was tuning up for his opening night set and asked him if he’d mind collaborating with me on an interview story concerning his assorted rambles. He agreed to meet me Friday and as things turned out, the rambling continued Saturday.
Despite Jack Elliott’s historic importance, he still remains a relatively unknown phenomenon to today’s pop culture. His music and character are simply not compatible with the hype that typically engulfs the contemporary pop star. He is a performer who defies the standard categories that produce successful “product.” Jack Elliott’s acceptance as an artist has been attained largely through his wonderful ability to share his eccentric being with an audience.
Jack on becoming a singing cowboy:
“Gene Autry was my idol for a while when I’s about nine years old. Then I started reading Will James books when I’s twelve. They turned me on a lot. Finally when I’s sixteen, I met an old bull rider who played pretty nice guitar and he showed me some chords.”
Following those first chords in 1947, Jack’s influences read like a “who’s who” of the country, folk, bluegrass, and blues traditions. Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Mountain Slim, Bill Monroe, Lead Belly, Reverend Gary Davis, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan rubbed off and became part of Jack Elliott.
Beyond a doubt Jack’s most profound influence was Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, the ingenious composer of over 1200 songs, became the idol of the teenage Elliott. Jack met Guthrie in 1951 in New York City. For the next six years, Jack became the shadow of Guthrie as he tagged along behind the Dust Bowl Ballader through 45 states. With little money in their pockets, Woody and Jack made their way singing on street corners, in union halls, radical gatherings of the left—wherever people would listen. During these half dozen years, Jack so thoroughly soaked up every nuance of Guthrie’s style that he virtually became Woody Guthrie.
“I did Woody about five years. I couldn’t think of no other way to sing. People’d say stop imitating Woody. Do Jack. You’re Jack, do Jack Elliott. I didn’t think I was Woody either, but I was under his spell. He had such a magnetic, dynamic personality that anything he touched bore his mark.”
Possibly motivated by urges to break this spell, Jack spilt for England in 1952. During the next six years, he lived and traveled throughout Europe where he gradually came to maturity as a folk artist. In the free and less critical environment of England, Jack's numerous influences blended into a rich, colorful, individualistic style.
On stage Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a free-floating, at times chaotic conglomeration of the characters and music he has absorbed during his 42 years. His songs reveal specific influences that have poured into him, but his interpretations are, without a doubt, his songs. Jack’s style is his peculiar creation. His guitar playing has now gone far beyond that of his early idol Woody, but it still remains polished, simple accompaniment. His voice, described by Jack as Irish tenor, is his most versatile and unselfconscious instrument. At any time in any song if the mood strikes him, he may leap from a guttural, throaty moan to a screechy falsetto. Something is gained or lost on every number as Elliott probes for a different feeling or meaning to songs he has performed countlessly in the past.
Between songs and sometimes during a song, the whimsical Jack Elliott mind rambles. He rehashes anecdotes from his varied travels, speaks fondly of his old guitar, traces the history of his relation to a particular song, recalls sweet memories of old friends, and then unexpectedly, awkwardly or gracefully, launches into another tune.
Despite Jack’s stubborn uniqueness, the ghost of Woody Guthrie is ever present. A very large portion of his show is Guthrie material and Jack clearly stands as one of the finest interpreters of Guthrie tunes. And on rare occasions, Jack will still pull out his Guthrie imitation, as he did for a few brief seconds during his second night’s performance when he re-enacted a Guthrie conversation with an old Okie farmer.
Swaggering from leg to leg, slowly removing his cowboy hat, emitting a holler—“Hi there, I’m Charley Guthrie’s boy.” For an instant an apparent incarnation took hold, then quickly faded.
“Well I did that off and on for about five years, but it makes me feel strange anymore…it pisses some people off.”
Woody Guthrie was a hobo refugee of the Dust Bowl. His songs tell the stories of those whose lives were mutilated by the capitalist system and the men who run it. Between 1932 and 1952, he penned his thousands of verses, which John Steinbeck referred to as the essence of the “American spirit.” Guthrie songs like “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Roll On Columbia,” “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You,” “Hard Ain’t It Hard,” “1913 Massacre,” and hundreds of others captured the tensions, courage, and misfortune arising from the Great Depression.
Needless to say, Jack still radiates his respect and awe of Guthrie. Woody Guthrie was an immense personal and musical force in Elliott’s younger years, but more important, he was a dear friend and brother.
Jack on Woody and Jack and Woody:
"Woody always talked like an ol' country guy. His talk was natural, straight from the shoulder talk. He'd read books, very well read, but he always talked like the common fella. A lot of his writing was influenced by the French poets, Baudelaire and some other guy I can't remember, perhaps Rimbaud, but it never showed directly."
"I never gave Woody any of that hero worship static. He could tell that I dug him even though I never came out and actually said it. Sometimes I regret not saying it, like some guys have said it to me. That might've been better. All in all, he treated me like a brother. I treated him like a brother. I treated him like an older brother. Sometimes I had to be the older brother. Woody would get just outrageous. Just get really drunk and need somebody to see him through. At one point, Woody was a big alcoholic…after Lead Belly died."
In 1952, Woody began a long fifteen-year struggle with Huntington's Chorea, a disease that destroys the nervous system. On October 3, 1967, Woody Guthrie passed away at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York.
"Woody accepted it beautifully. Anyone else would have never lasted fifteen years. But he had this powerful will to live. Woody loved life."
And like Woody, Jack loves life. A consuming fascination with life, in all forms and varieties, drives the restless Elliott spirit. It has pushed him around the world with the impossible hope of seeing all things and knowing all people. It is the quality that makes him strange and remarkable. It is the quality that grants him the odd sort of charisma and charm that makes him imminently likable. One can easily understand how this man has become friends with as many characters as he has.
Musicians, writers, actors, farmers and ranch hands, sailors and auto workers, motley personalities from all walks of life constantly dart in and out of Ramblin' Jack tales. A discussion of Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory can lead to a remembrance of Jack's "few months in 1953" with Jack Kerouac and how, "I's very tickled when his book (On The Road) came out. I thought wow, I know that fellow." A ramble concerning the 1950's may turn up the name of James Dean. "I married an ex-girl friend of his. Dean was a very dynamic fellow who I was very taken by."
And of course there's always Bob Dylan: "I haven't been around him in five years. He's raisin' a family. Just trying to be a normal human being like everyone else."
Woody Guthrie had also been Bob Dylan's idol. As fate would have it, Dylan's path crossed Elliott's, they became close friends and Dylan picked up much of his early folk style from observing Jack. Dylan is even known to have performed "a Jack Elliott routine" in much the same manner that Jack had done his "Guthrie routine."
"Other people saw it more clearly than I did. They'd say 'look Jack, he's doing you. Jack that's you.' I thought he was doing Guthrie, his version of Guthrie. Then finally I saw, yeah it was me. He was doing a couple of things that I did, but didn't know I did and he was definitely doing it, copying it. I thought he sure had a lot of nerve--not only to do it, but to do it in front of me and his whole crowd of people who knew what he was doing. I was pissed for a while, but I realized it was just his transition like mine with Woody."
Unlike his friend Dylan, Jack has never been a songwriter. Jack's influence on folk music has come through his ability to interpret.
"Well I've only actually written three or four songs, but I've made up hundreds in the air--clubs, parties, in front of audiences, that's my best time to create. Still, I just can't sit down alone and write. I've got no discipline to sit my ass down and write. Other night at a party, Jerry Jeff Walker was teasing' me about not written' nothing'. So I just took the guitar from him and made him up a song about how I met Dan Blocker…just can't sit down and write though."
As our conversation drew to a close, I felt pressed to ask Jack for an explanation of himself--a verbal self-portrait. I mentioned to him that his friend Arlo Guthrie had written of Jack as being a man who assumed one identity after another. Arlo described this Elliott trait as an unusual ability to become "everyone and nobody" and yet somehow remain unique. No doubt Jack had encountered this description before, as he nodded in quick agreement. Then after a brief thoughtful pause, he commented, "Well, I didn't like it at first (Arlo's description), but yeah, it's true. It's true. He's got me pegged."