The ballad of Ramblin’ Jack
True to his name, cowboy folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott can be a little hard to pin down. So when Aiyana Elliott wanted to spend a little quality time with her dad, she hit upon a novel idea: Why not make a movie about him? The result is Aiyana’s debut feature, The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack, both a documentary about a unique American musician and a personal memoir about a father/daughter relationship.
Though Ramblin’ Jack has been performing since the day he ran away from his Brooklyn home to join the rodeo at age 15, the acclaim that visited his contemporaries seemed to elude him, with his position as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan degenerating to the point that he was once told, “Hey, you sound like Bob Dylan!” “Man, I’ve been singing like Dylan for 20 years,” was Jack’s laconic reply.
But over the last five years, Jack’s career has been on the upswing. 1995’s South Coast, his first studio album in over 20 years, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. In 1998, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House. The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack has already won the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere.
Aiyana had previously made a short film about her father while an NYU film student, and in the wake of the success of South Coast, she decided expand it to a feature. “I originally just wanted to try and tell the story of Jack,” she says. “So I did quite a bit of research, not only into his career and background, but folk music in general. I really tried to educate myself and put the story into historical perspective.”
Over the course of the two years, Aiyana assembled a fascinating assortment of footage, from Jack’s appearances on The Johnny Cash Show and Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, to clips from Alan Lomax’s 1961 film Ballads, Blues And Bluegrass, to home footage from the Guthrie family’s archives (the accompanying soundtrack, on Vanguard, also features a nice selection of rarities). Arlo Guthrie is one of several people interviewed, along with Kris Kristofferson, Odetta, and Jack’s ex-spouses (“I’ve wore out four wives,” he jokes in the film), who nonetheless retain fond memories of him.
Jack admits to some ambivalence about the project. “I wasn’t real tickled about it,” he says. “I found it very difficult to have a camera constantly poked in my face. But who could be better than your daughter to be attacking me with this camera and trying to get the story out of me. And I tried to open up and tell the story, but some of it was very hard to do.”
Indeed, while the film’s other interviewees are quick to share memories, Jack spends his time avoiding being pinned down by his daughter, a conflict that becomes a key element to the story. “I didn’t set out to make a personal film,” Aiyana says. “It just happened. Because I was Jack’s daughter, people were pretty personal with me, and that ended up being a factor in the interviews. But I underestimated how challenging it would be, with my dad’s hectic schedule, carving out time to do the shooting we needed to do [with him]. That became difficult, and so that became a part of the story too.”
Ultimately, the resulting tension helps flesh out the portrait of the man, capturing Jack in all his human vulnerability, which even Jack seems to recognize. “I tried to slither down in my seat a couple of times,” he says about first seeing the film, “but mostly I liked it.” No matter how familiar you are — or aren’t — with Jack’s story, The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack allows you to cruise down the highway with a man who’s always ready to spin yet another tale.