BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott may not be a household name, but his life has influenced several generations of singer-songwriters, starting with a young Bob Dylan whom he met when visiting an ailing Woody Guthrie in 1961.
Elliott, who performs at the Old Town School of Folk Music Sunday, grew up in Brooklyn, but dreamed of becoming a cowboy. So he became one, first by running away from home and joining a rodeo, and later by donning a cowboy hat and traveling the world singing Guthrie songs, and many of his own, that helped popularize American roots music far outside Greenwich Village’s folk revival scene.
He is credited by Dylan, the Grateful Dead, John Prine, Beck, and many others as an influence, not just for his songs, but also for his flat-picking guitar technique. In 2009, he earned a Grammy for “A Stranger Here” (Anti), produced by Joe Henry. He turned 83 in August.
We talked recently by phone and I soon learned that “ramblin’” is a nickname he earned, not because of his road travels, but by his ability to spin an entertaining yarn. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Is this a special tour for you?
All tours are special because it means that I’ll be able to pay the rent and buy cat food.
This is your sixth decade of touring. How have audiences changed the most?
The audiences seem to be listening better. They seem to get a little bit more out of what I’m saying and what I’m playing. Maybe I’m doing something that maybe is reaching them better, or that I’m learning how to be a better performer. Being able to do things that can arrest their attention or get their understanding.
You are credited for being the first person to really bring Woody Guthrie’s music to a new generation. What is it about his songs that stay with you?
I try and remember what Woody was really like. He was twenty years my senior. I was 19 years old when I met Woody and he was 39 and Arlo (Guthrie) was three. I stayed with him approximately three years with the Guthries in that house up there. And then a couple of more years, here and there intermittingly. And then he had to go into the hospital in 1954. And then I didn’t see him at all for six years when I was bumming around Europe singing Woody Guthrie songs and cowboy songs. And I was thinking about Woody from time to time, how he used to be when I knew him a few years before that.
And then when I came back to the States, all that time I wasn’t thinking about being a professional musician, I wanted to use that as means of getting around the world. As a ticket to travel, as a hitchhiker, when I was 17 or 18, hitchhiking around the country with guitar. And truckers would say, “can you play that thing?” I’d say, “Yep!” And they’d say “Well get in, where do you want to go?”
It was a ticket to free transportation. I would have to serenade them when they were driving in their incredible noisy trucks, facing backwards. If you sat in a seat facing forward they couldn’t hear the sound. You had to sit facing toward the driver with your back against the dashboard sometimes. Well that was very uncomfortable and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but that was what was happening in those times.
After traveling around Europe for six years, I went back to the States to see Woody in the hospital. On my very first day back, I got very little sleep in that ship. It was November 1961. I went to the hospital where Woody was in New Jersey and there was a young fella there named Bob Dylan and he said he just come out from Minnesota a few months before and was hanging around New York City and playing his guitar in little coffee houses. And things were not in any sort of a professional setup, it was just a few people were singing here and there, just getting a toehold in a whole new industry that was developing, I’d say. Like in that movie they had called “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I didn’t think it was anything like that. The filmmakers created their own little assumption of what it might have been like. I couldn’t relate to it at all. I loved the cats always getting away.
In 1953, you made an influential road trip South into New Orleans with musicologist Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton, one of the founders of the Old Town School of Folk Music, where you are performing on Sunday.
Guy Carawan was owner of the car and Frank was too young to drive. I think he was only 17 years old at the time. So Guy and I did all the driving. Guy had a lot of relatives named Carawan all over North Carolina and Guy and Frank grew up in Los Angeles and drove cross country in that car and I met them when they arrived in New York and invited myself to come along with them and they said sure. That was a marvelous trip. I wrote a [talking blues] song about that, in fact. One of the only really good songs I’d written. Called the “912 Greens.” We were in search we were supposed to find a banjo player allegedly was living in French Quarter at 912 Toulouse Street. We just had a name, not an address. Couldn’t find anything listed Billy Fair. But we went to relax at coffee place by the river called Café Du Monde and there we bumped into Billy Fair. He happened to be having a cup of coffee and a beignet. He invited us to come over to his place it was at 912 Toulouse Street so I called the song “912 Greens.” I don’t do it anymore, it’s fourteen minutes long and I’m running out of wind.
Is that happening more often?
I just had my 77th birthday. That’s only because I decided when I was supposed to turn 80, I chickened out. Pete Seeger was playing the banjo and singing me “Happy Birthday.” It was at the Newport Folk Festival. I saw the cake and it said “80” on it. And I thought, “I ain’t going there.” And I know how to drive a truck so I double clutched with my left foot and got it into reverse and we were going backwards. So instead of turning 80, I just turned 79 again. That was three years ago. I’m 77 now and it was the best decision I ever made. Try it, it really works!
Do you have memories of playing the Earl of Old Town?
Del Close came to see me, who taught the actors at the Second City and [the Earl] was right across the street from the Second City. I remember one time visiting Del at his apartment, which was right in an alley behind the Earl of Old Town. And Del was commiserating with me. He said, “Oh Jesus, Jack it’s a bad day today.” I said, “what’s the matter.” He said, “I lost my best actor I had to take him to the airport, he’s gone to Hollywood.” “What was his name?” “John Belushi.” “Oh, I’ll watch for him. I live in California. I’ll watch for him.” “Yeah, well, he’s great but I hated to say goodbye to John.” “Has he ever been over to Earl?” “Yeah, Jack, I brought him over to see you last year.” I said, “Really? Did I meet him?” “He was very shy, he was very quiet.” I was fascinated. John Belushi saw me. I never met him, doggone.
You ran away from home to join a rodeo and never stopped roaming.
I always wanted to live to the age of about 225. I’ve always been fascinated by old time sailing ships and things from out of the past. I’ve never taken to modern times very well. But as a kid I wanted to be airline pilot and started taking flying lessons when I was sixteen. And my dad found out about that and he grounded me. I still love sailing and boats. And old trucks, I love old trucks. Of course, some of these newer trucks have some nice gadgets on them, they’re quieter and smoother riding. But those early trucks were fantastic, they were built to last.
I was privileged to get to visit onboard some old sailing vessels and work on them and climb around on the rigging. I was lucky. My next-door neighbor he was a harbor pilot he had sailed in a whaler from New Bedford, Mass. Captain Hinkley. He was teaching me stuff about the old sailing ships and grooming me to become a merchant marine officer. I was going to go to a maritime school, but then I ended up running away from home and joined a traveling rodeo and groomed horses for $2 a day and I loved it. My interests splayed out between horses, truck and boats, and I also like music a little bit.
You had to develop a lot of confidence — Where did that come from?
I think growing up in New York where the people were very insular and narrow minded about rest of the world. They had a kind of an attitude that New York is the only good place. A lot of places are like that from people who never leave home.
That’s what [cowboy writer and artist] Will James referred to as “old guards.” He wrote about the life of a traveling cowboy. He was born in eastern Canada but wanted to be a cowboy. And his mom got him a ticket to eastern Calgary. They didn’t have any cowboys around Quebec. So he went out to Calgary and started working on ranches when he was fifteen. And eventually he got his own ranch in Montana when his books started selling. I’ve known cowboys who said reading Will James’ books made them want to be a cowboy. He died in 1942 at the age of 50. He could draw wild horses so perfectly you could get inside the mind of the horse.
So to be comfortable in a crowd of people who may come from a mixed crowd, especially if it’s in a large city like New York or Paris or Chicago, you want to relate to them a little bit, make them laugh and make them relax. So you need to know something about the area. And that helps if you’ve been there a few times before and got to know something about the area. So just putting in the years of traveling around and being there, there’s no substitute.
What do you like to sing now when you perform?
I still love a few of the Bob Dylan songs that I’ve always been doing. I always like to include three, four or five Woody Guthrie songs. And I was fond of Johnny Cash. I got to meet Johnny Cash and got to travel with him. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. Very caring person. He was very interested to know who you are and where you come from and what you’re like and how are you. I got to know him the first time I visited John and June in Nashville where they were recording one of my songs, “A Cup of Coffee.” We went out and had a couple of drinks at a restaurant, and then went to pick up my friend Peter Lafarge who wrote a bunch of songs about the Indians and John was recorded a bunch of those songs too. We were in the car waiting for Peter to come downstairs. John says to me, “I like to wear black.” I said, “I’ll make a mental note of that!” I treasure the memory of that moment of him saying that in that quiet voice. “I like to wear black.”
He also gave me one of his coats. He took me to the closet and rolled the door open. It was the day they presented John with a whole rack on wheels of jackets and clothes because he was appearing on television. So here was this jacket. It wasn’t his favorite jacket and he wanted to give it to me as a gift. I tried it on, it was suede, it was a rough weather proof kind of jacket with a belt. I put it on. It was like 19 sizes too big for me. Like my big brother’s coat. I said, “jeez it doesn’t fit me.” And he said, “you can have it tailored.” I never had it tailored. I wore it very proudly. It used to give me a real thrill to be wearing Johnny Cash’s coat.
Do you still have it?
No, it was stolen by a maid in a motel. I left it in the closet. I forgot it. Probably the weather was so warm, I forgot I had it and needed to wear it. I’ve left some of my favorite clothes in motel rooms. You should never hang your clothes in a motel closet. Because in the morning, you’re too fuzzy-headed to remember. Because you have to drive about 400 miles to get to the next town. The dangers of the road.
At age 83, what are you most proud of?
I’m pretty proud of Bob Dylan. And also very much Guy Clark and John Prine. And John R. Cash. And they are some of my very favorite people in the world.
They’ve influenced me too. We all had a great deal of esteem and admiration for each other. We didn’t always say it. But we hung out together and enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. In those few, few moments we spend together. And it was all too short and too fast.