The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack

a review by Peter Stone Brown

Very near the beginning of "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," there is footage of him performing on The Johnny Cash TV show in 1969, singing Jimmie Rodgers ' "Muleskinner Blues." In those brief moments, Jack Elliott's greatness shines through in way that is both amazing and then sad, in the context of the movie. He was 38 at the time, but looks much younger, is astoundingly handsome and in complete command of his performance. This may have been his first, perhaps only, national TV appearance, and he rose to the occasion and delivered. And that is the sad part because as this movie consistently points out, Jack Elliott has made a career of well. doing just about everything you can do not to have a career. Much later the movie goes back to that performance in the middle of yodel and Elliott holds this one falsetto note, and keeps holding it, until you think he can't hold it anymore, yet he does until the audience starts cheering wildly and then he finally breaks into the rest of the yodel.

Jack Elliott was the folksinger's folksinger, a true legend. As Arlo Guthrie says in the film, "Others talked about it. He lived it." And it's true.

He may have been born Elliott Adnopoz, the son of Brooklyn doctor, but he made himself into Jack Elliott. He ran away from home when he was 15, joined a rodeo and stayed till he was found out. Then he went back home finished high school, somehow found out about Woody Guthrie, called him, went to visit and never left. And Guthrie, in his own style taught him whatever he knew, and knowing he was getting sick, was glad to have someone to pass this on to.

If there's one reason to see this movie, it's because there is extremely rare footage of Guthrie singing "John Henry" accompanied by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. It makes you hungry for more.

And there are equally impressive clips of Jesse Fuller, Elizabeth Cotton and Clarence Ashley as well.

The film was made by Jack Elliott's daughter Aiyana, and a large part of the movie-in fact the premise of the movie is her trying to get to know the father she never knew. Scene after scene and interview after interview recounts how irresponsible Elliott was as father or husband, or what a space cadet he was in general. When her mother is asked if Elliott was a good father, she just laughs and laughs.

Much of this is done in fairly comical fashion, but there's a bit too much of it.

Around the time Woody Guthrie went in the hospital in the mid-'50s, Jack Elliott split for Europe with his first wife, and was pretty much of a success, especially in England, where he recorded several albums. His influence in England was tremendous and many of the major rock stars of the '60s count him as influence. He returned to America in 1961 at the beginning of the folk movement to find college boys in sweaters doing cleaned-up versions of Woody Guthrie songs. Elliott's comments on this as well as on the English skiffle movement are hysterical.

He also returned to find Bob Dylan, whom he first encountered in Woody Guthrie's hospital room. Much has been made in the media of this and Elliott's feeling left behind in Dylan's wake.

One of the best stories about Dylan and Elliott is not told. Reportedly, when Dylan found out that Jack Elliott was really Elliott Adnopoz, which happened in one of those after-hours sessions at the Gaslight Caf, he rolled on the floor laughing hysterically.

Elliott's relationship with Dylan was sort of father/son, or maybe older brother. Elliott likes to think of it as father and son. Dylan, just like Elliott did with Guthrie, clearly learned and borrowed from his performing style. The best example of this I've heard is the bootleg recording "Ain't A-Gonna Grieve No More."

Still, Dylan's respect for Elliott is made quite clear in the clip from "Don 't Look Back," shown in the movie where he's talking to Elliott's old singin g partner Derroll Adams. When he says (to Adams), "You played with Jack, right?", he is excited and even awestruck.

While the movie mentions the Rolling Thunder Revue, neither it, nor Elliott, nor the various critics who have amplified the Dylan segment in their reviews (though it is actually a minor part of the film) acknowledge that Rolling Thunder was Dylan's payback to Elliott. It gave him far more exposure than he possibly could've gotten on his own, and at a time when he had for all intents and purposes disappeared. That Elliott didn't take that career boost, and get a new recording contract is hardly Bob Dylan's fault. Every other musician involved with that tour (especially the ones previously unknown) did that.

In a sense that's the real story of Jack Elliott. He wanted the success, but he didn't want it badly enough to make it the priority. He'd rather be ramblin' off somewhere, to a cowboy poet convention or on a sailing ship. Anything else, including maintaining a relationship with anyone, was too much trouble.

Near the end of the movie, his daughter finally confronts him and tries to have a real conversation. Elliott is clearly uncomfortable and the scene is awkward. Elliott is saved by someone knocking on the door of his Winnebago and he rambles off.

The scene is answered by Arlo Guthrie saying, "Maybe you're just not going to know who he is."

Perhaps Dave Van Ronk puts it best, when he says, "Maybe Jack would've been happier if he had settled down, and maybe the world would've had one more good father, but we wouldn't have had "Ramblin' Jack Elliott."

Today Ramblin' Jack Elliott is closing in on 70, and his voice isn't what he was. In concert, he talks as much as he plays, maybe mores, and following what he says isn't always easy because, well.. he rambles. Where once his voice would soar, it now comes off as eccentric. But his incredibly gentle guitar style is still there, whether in his excellent flatpicking, or fingerpicking "Don't Think Twice It's All Right," a song he was born to sing. And even when the notes aren't there, the passion and the intensity most definitely is, even if it's only in moments or a passing phrase. And that passion and intensity is what set him apart all along and still sets him apart. He may have invented himself, but he is the real thing.

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