Long considered the finest living interpreter of folk icon Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott's devotion to cowboy trails and troubadour songs has yielded him a rich but hard life. As the voice of American folk music for much of the '50s and '60s, Elliott, now 66, brought alive guitar songs of our dusty roads, rails, hills and prairies not just for fans but for artists ranging from Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Odetta to Jackson Browne, Guy Clark and Arlo Guthrie. Elliott's best-known disciple is Bob Dylan who, despite his obvious Guthrie-isms, played his first New York gig as 'the Son of Jack Elliott' and was criticized early on for sounding too much like Elliott. Today, Elliott's voice, or at least his channeling of Guthrie (who died in 1967), can be heard throughout popular song, from Nanci Griffith to Tom Waits.
At 14, Elliott Charles Adnopoz became 'Buck Elliott' and joined a traveling rodeo, hoping to bury his roots as the son of a Jewish Brooklyn doctor. Rodeo cowboys encouraged Elliott to pick up a guitar and he soon developed into a gifted quicksilver flatpicker by copying the technique of players like Brahma Rogers. In 1951, Ramblin' Jack's musical identity was sealed when he went to visit Woody Guthrie and emerged a year and a half later as Woody's virtual Doppelganger.
During the '50s and '60s, Elliott busked his way across the rural South and West and through Europe, scavenging folk blues and ballads along the way and recording for the Topic, Prestige and Vanguard labels. In the late '60s, Elliott recorded two albums for Warner Bros., the influential Bull Durham Sacks and Railroad Tracks and Young Brigham (the tracks from both are available on the 1995 Rounder CD, Me & Bobby McGee). The records were to be Elliott's U.S. breakthrough. When they garnered only critical acclaim and not popular success, a bitter Elliott blamed Warners' mismanagement and dropped out of the recording industry to become a hand-to-mouth Pecos Bill of the folk underground. He has been touring hard ever since, zig- zagging the world to sing songs like 'Rock Island Line' and 'Talking Fisherman Blues' to a dedicated cult of admirers.
Last decade, the folk outlaw started to emerge from the shadows, aided by those who recognized Elliott's irreplaceable value as the keeper of the cowboy-troubadour folk flame and one of the few remaining links to the Beat poets and '60s coffeehouse counterculture. Ramblin' Jack has released more records in the last five years than in the previous 25, winning a Grammy for 1995's South Coast and recording 1998's widely heralded Friends of Mine. He's also the subject of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, an award-winning documentary by his daughter Aiyana that hits theaters this month with an accompanying Vanguard soundtrack CD.
Guitar.com: Your folk guitar technique was widely copied in the '50s and '60s. You also taught guitar to Arlo Guthrie when his dad was ill, and you were a mentor to Bob Dylan. How did you develop your flat-picking style?
Ramblin Jack: I started out wanting to pick the guitar in a bluegrass style. I learned to play mostly by playing along with the cowboys. I copied stuff from my friend Todd Fletcher. Then I played with Tom Paley, who led the Doo Wop City Ramblers, in the late 1940s. Tom was my introduction to Woody Guthrie, later in 1951. He played just like Merle Travis and I learned a lot from watching and playing with him. I think Merle was the greatest picker of them all, ever. I also liked Hobart Smith, he used steel finger picks and he would flail over the strings with his down-picking, sliding down with fingernails or picks. It was a most incredible style.
Guitar.com: Listening to radio programs like 'The Grand Ol' Opry' provided a lot of your early music training. Who are some of the players you've admired, who have influenced you?
Ramblin' Jack: I listened to Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, loved Earl Scruggs' picking on the banjo, the Blue Sky Boys, the Carter Family, and Burl Ives. And then I discovered Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. But the first guitarist I ever listened to was a jazz-blues-type player, Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie sang torch songs, not really blues, and he was a very good guitarist. He did a song I loved called 'Tomorrow Night.' Before that, I listened to a lot of New Orleans jazz, --[jazz brassman] Budd Johnson, Tommy Dorsey, and Pinetop Smith, a classic boogie-woogie piano player. Pinetop recorded four sides for Brunswick Records, then went to a bar to celebrate and his girlfriend came in and shot him.
Guitar.com: You ran away from home to travel with the rodeo cowboys, who inspired you to play guitar?
Ramblin' Jack: Brahma Rogers was a rodeo clown who played a great guitar, and we used to pay him a quarter to serenade us rodeo hands. He'd sing songs and recite poems, jokes, and pass the hat. Another rodeo clown, Lost John Cruthers, gave me my first cigar. After three months, he persuaded me to go back home to finish high school, then I could do anything I wanted. My rodeo bosses told me, 'It ain't where you're from that's important. It's where you're going.'
Guitar.com: That sort of became your 'ramblin'' creed, drifting across the landscape. And it led to great experiences.
Ramblin' Jack: Yeah, like when I went to visit Woody [Guthrie]. We just started playing music together and one day led to another. It got to be a good thing and I ended up staying at his house for a year and a half. When I left there, I rode all over Europe on a Vespa motorbike, 5,000 miles in the rain every day with British writer Herb Green, and all over the rural U.S. That was a great time in my life. Then I landed in Greenwich Village, where I was friends with Bob Dylan and met Jack Kerouac. Jack had just finished writing On the Road, and he read me the entire manuscript over three days, sitting on a floor on Bleecker Street.
Guitar.com: Your nickname reflects not just your endless travels but a gift for gab. How did you develop your other talent for 'rambling,' your love of storytelling?
Ramblin' Jack: I was just hitchhiking, taking rides mostly in trucks because they were generally safer than cars. Truck drivers drove for a living. With cars there was too much of a chance the driver would be drunk or nuts or something and you'd end up in a ditch. And since truckers would go longer distances there was a lot of time to kill. That's when I first got into swapping life stories.
Guitar.com: A lot of those stories are in the songs you sing, and you've picked up hundreds of folk tunes and ballads in your travels. What makes a good song?
Ramblin' Jack: Musically it's good if it has a pleasant catchy melody, but I like the words more than music. I like songs that have words and phrases that sound like real people speak, a Zen meaning that catches your imagination. Like 'Red Molly,' a song that British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson wrote about a Vincent motorcycle. I'm always in awe of singer-songwriters, because I've only come up with 4 songs in 40 years.
Guitar.com: You're the number one keeper of Woody Guthrie's flame. Are there other performers? interpretations of Woody's material that you like?
Ramblin' Jack: I did like Billy Bragg. I saw him play at a festival about 10 years ago and didn't know he was. But I immediately thought of Woody because of the way Billy stood, played and sang. There was a great song written about Woody by Wiley Hubbard. And I still like Bob Dylan's work, especially the early stuff.
Guitar.com: Bob Dylan regarded your albums as the folk Bible. But there's not much of a record of your time together. Tell us about the duet with Bob on the new album.
Ramblin' Jack: The Vanguard soundtrack CD from the movie [The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack] has some songs that weren't included in the movie and one of those tracks is a very rough, early recording from a radio program. We spent a lot of time together back then. The track is a song that Bob had put together. It was very crude and impromptu, with lots of giggling. I was singing 'doo wah, doo wah' while Bob was singing, 'I got acne' [from Eric VonSchmidt's song 'Acne']. But it embarrasses me to listen to it. Of all the stuff to put out! But I don't think there are many other tapes of us together. I wish there were, and I wished we had sung better, because we rarely performed together on a stage.
Guitar.com: What do you think of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, your daughter Aiyana's documentary?
Ramblin' Jack: I never saw the film until it won those awards at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I was very tickled by old footage of the family home, me as a baby, early-day rodeo shots, Madison Square Garden, stuff I didn't know existed. My brother in Pasadena, who I rarely see, had saved a lot of that, miraculously. Other things bothered me, though, like showing me in full grump mode. I got tired of having the camera poked in my face for three years. I think it's a little long, though they had excellent editors to keep it lively. I'm just honored that I'm receiving so much attention.