Arts

At 91, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Still Wants to Tell You a Story

TOMALES, Calif. — At a friend’s rustic home in a tiny village about an hour north of San Francisco, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was trying to decide what to eat for breakfast. But he couldn’t resist telling a story.

“Some of the best oatmeal I ever had was in the L.A. County Jail,” the singer said from beneath an old felt cowboy hat, a blue bandanna tied around his neck. In 1955, while living in Topanga Canyon, he was pulled over on the Pacific Coast Highway because the taillight on his Ford Model A was broken. “They told me I could pay a $25 fine or spend six days in the clink.”

He was interested in religion at the time, and thought he’d finally have the chance to read the Bible, but his cellmates were too noisy. “I was extremely bored, and the police needed the space for more bona fide criminals, so they kicked me out on the second day,” he said. “They even gave me bus fare to get home.”

In his decades as a wayfaring folk singer, Elliott, who turned 91 in August, has amassed volumes of such tales, stories that blur the line between reality and fantasy, and translate as a particular, increasingly endangered strain of American folklore. He’s released nearly two dozen albums since 1956, alone and with the banjo player Derroll Adams (who died in 2000), but wasn’t recognized with a Grammy until 1995.

He’s known as an interpreter rather than a writer, singing beloved versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” by Tim Hardin, “San Francisco Bay Blues” by Jesse Fuller and the traditional “South Coast.” Though he hasn’t put out an album since “A Stranger Here” in 2009, he continues to perform live. His gigs this fall included a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sept. 24; a short run of concerts in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina start this week, followed by a tribute to John Prine and stops in California.

It’s a welcome return to the road. Elliott played 44 concerts in 2019 before the pandemic forced a 15-month pause, the longest he’s ever gone without stepping onstage. In August, he rescheduled two shows after contracting the coronavirus, though he described his case as “mild” after taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid.

Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz to middle class, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, he became so enamored with our nation’s iconography — the rodeo, merchant vessels, boxcar-hopping folkies, Peterbilt trucks — that he transformed himself into a peripatetic cowboy, a maritime enthusiast and a troubadour chasing the wind.

Today, he’s one of the last of the ’50s era folk music revivalists and beatniks who eschewed their parents’ conventions. He studied with Woody Guthrie, inspired Bob Dylan and hung out with Jack Kerouac. He was recorded by Alan Lomax, and has performed with Phil Ochs, Nico and Prine. He has covered, befriended and worked alongside American folk icons for so long that he’s become one.

“He wears the cloak and scepter of the American minstrel; he’s that guy,” said Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead and Elliott’s longtime friend. The pair met in the ’60s when Elliott was opening for Lightnin’ Hopkins at a club in Berkley, and Weir, who was 16 at the time, crashed into the dressing room through a skylight to avoid being carded. “He dropped me into a conversation that we’ve been having for incarnations; he pretty much had me nailed to the wall,” he said. “I became acutely aware of who he was and why they call him Ramblin’ Jack.”

After decades of touring, the nonagenarian is resilient. He moves with swagger in his carefully chosen outfits.Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

As the legend goes, Elliott’s nickname originated with the folk singer Odetta’s mother. “I knocked, and the door opened a crack, and I heard her say, ‘Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack is here,’” Elliott said. “I adopted it right away.”

Since then, Elliott has spent much of his life traveling between the East and West Coasts, with a little Texas in between. He finally settled in a modest rental in rural West Marin, an arresting stretch along coastal Highway 1. In these parts, Elliott’s become a sort of mythological figure, recognized because of his career but also, more generally, for his vibe, a kind soul in Western wear who cares just as much about the local postman as he does about his days on the Rolling Thunder Review.

“He doesn’t distinguish between the Joan Baezes and the Bob Dylans, and the person who’s driving the bus or the truck,” his daughter Aiyana Elliott said in an interview in nearby Marshall, Calif. “He loves working people, but also all people who he comes in contact with.”

In 2000, Aiyana made a documentary about her father, “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack,” that explored the real-life costs of building a mythic artistic persona and finds Aiyana grappling with Elliott’s unrelenting restlessness. In a moment of frustration, she begs for alone time with him, which he never grants. That plotline, she revealed, was more loaded than it seemed. “If there was anything keeping me from my father,” she explained, “it was that he had abominably bad taste in women for decades.”

At the behest of his daughter, Elliott has been recording his tales for posterity at the home of his friend Peter Coyote, the actor, author and ’60s era counter cultural activist. “They trusted I could keep him on track,” Coyote said in an interview at his home. “He comes over here with a really good sound man, and people like Bobby Weir, Peter Rowan and all these other musicians he’s known drop in.”

He lives quite modestly, a lot of people don’t realize just how modestly,” Elliott’s daughter Aiyana said. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so rich in friends.”Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

Weir emphasized the importance of capturing Elliott’s history: “I’m a big proponent of making some space for him in the Smithsonian,” he said, “because an enormous part of America’s musical heritage lives in that body.”

Known for his storytelling and larger-than-life stage presence, Elliott’s greatest superpower may be his way with the guitar. “The way he attacks it, I only hear that in him,” Weir said. Elliott’s mighty flatpicking is also what made Frank Hamilton take notice amid the American folk music revival, when the two musicians were drawn to Washington Square Park. The former Weavers member and a founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, called Elliott a “folk guitarist par excellence” and a “very good raconteur.” “He and I, and a lot of other young men at the time, were imbued with a romanticism of the open road,” he said in a phone interview.

Though Elliott has written few songs, a road trip with Hamilton spurred his most famous original, “912 Greens,” inspired by the house of a folk singer they crashed with in New Orleans. “That’s a talkin’ song,” Elliott said, meaning that he’s telling a story over acoustic guitar. “Guy Clark told me he stole the guitar part I’m playing for one of his songs, and I was honored.” Another conversational composition, “Cup of Coffee” was covered by Johnny Cash on his 1966 album of novelty songs “Everybody Loves a Nut.”

Recalling his earliest encounter with Dylan, Elliott described him as “a nifty little kid with peach fuzz, he couldn’t shave yet.” (The future Nobel Prize winner was then a teenager visiting Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey.) Elliott wrote “Bleeker Street Blues” for Dylan in 1997, after the singer-songwriter was hospitalized with severe chest pains from histoplasmosis, a fungal infection. “Later on, we’ll join Woody and Jerry and Townes/But right now we all need you, so stick around,” Elliott speak-sings over acoustic guitar.

From left: Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Elliott and Dylan onstage in 1975. Elliott performed as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that year.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

The pair grew close when they were neighbors in the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village, where they bonded over a shared love of Guthrie, and other music of the burgeoning folk revival. Since then, fans have accused Dylan of aping Elliott’s style in his early days, particularly his nasally delivery, but that doesn’t bother the elder. “I helped him get into the musician’s union,” he said. Today, the pair aren’t in regular contact, but when they do cross paths, it’s with a great deal of warmth. “Love you Jack,” Elliot recalled Dylan saying after a gig in Oakland in 2014. “I thought, ‘Wow, you’ve never told me that before,’” Elliott said.

Unlike Dylan, and many of his other peers, Elliott hasn’t seen much commercial success — partly because he deals in niche genres, but also because “he’s not been great at managing his career, per se,” according to Aiyana. Because he hasn’t written many songs, he receives far fewer royalties on album sales and streams. The bulk of his income comes from touring, which has its own risks. More than anything, Elliott has sought freedom, and human connection. “He lives quite modestly, a lot of people don’t realize just how modestly,” Aiyana said. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone so rich in friends.”

After decades of touring, the nonagenarian is resilient. He’s recovered from triple bypass surgery and two “little strokes” that left him unable to play the guitar for about a week. His hearing is assisted by small aids, but his mobility and stamina befit a much younger man. He moves with swagger in his carefully chosen outfits.

After a breakfast of oatmeal with berries and chopped pecans, and a plethora of stories about schooner ships, James Dean, big rigs, Leon Russell and other subjects between, Elliott loaded into his Volvo station wagon to wind through the cypress-lined roads overlooking the inlet Tomales Bay. He passed through his friend Nancy’s lavender field, and by the dunes at Dillon Beach where he and his friend Venta hike. In a vulnerable moment, he recalled his wife, Jan, the last of five, who died from alcoholism in 2001. “I was very devastated when she left us,” he said.

In 1995, the pair were living in a motor home in Point Reyes while she worked for Ridgetop Music, owned by Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods. One day, they decided to head north to sight see. “I was driving and admiring the bay on the left, and she was in the passenger seat and saw a sign on the right,” he said. “We pulled in and rented the house on the spot.” He’s lived in it ever since.

“An enormous part of America’s musical heritage lives in that body,” Bob Weir said of Elliott.Credit…Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times

During the hourlong drive, Elliott’s profile set against the bucolic pastures rolling by and magnificent views of the ocean, he recalled other friends and acquaintances he’s known over the years, some who’ve moved away or died. Pointing to a run-down farmhouse, he wondered what happened to its owner: “I haven’t seen him in years, and I hope he’s OK.” Though Elliott lives in one of the most beautiful places in America, it’s clear that, for him, the landscapes are an added benefit. It’s the people here that truly nourish him.

Later, at Nick’s Cove, a local restaurant with a pier that stretches over the bay, Elliott chatted with a woman who had bellied up to the bar to watch a baseball game. “She runs a big dairy,” he explained as he headed toward a table facing the night’s performer. “Hey, I know that guy!” He lit up at the sight of Danny Montana, a fellow cowboy folk singer dressed in a hat and boots. On this September night, he covered many of Elliott’s friends, like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark, and Elliott hummed along in between bites of a hamburger. When he finished his set, Elliott invited Montana to sit at our table, and then complimented his “rig” as he packed up his gear to leave.

In just a few weeks, Elliott’s own show would be hitting the road once again. He was particularly excited about his travel companion, a former Navy pilot who also loves horses. “He just got a brand-new, red, Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck, and he’s going to be my driver,” he said with a grin. “He’s a good driver and a great guy.”

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