Ramblin' Jack Elliott: 60 Minutes With An American Music Folk Hero

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is a hero of American Music. He was mentored by Woody Guthrie, called a "long lost father" by Dylan, and Mick Jagger claims to have first picked up a guitar after hearing Elliott's "San Francisco Bay Blues." He is a folk musician, a poet, a storyteller, and a most of all, a cowboy. Earlier this year, the 75 year old Elliott put out a collection of traditional folk songs on Anti- called I Stand Alone. The album, contrary to its title, features guests like Flea and Lucinda Williams.

Last week, Ramblin' Jack played a concert at the wonderful BB King's in New York City. Before the show, I was given the great honor of being able to meet Jack and ask him a few questions. Elliott is still a handsome man and looks much more like a cowboy than any New Yorker with a pair of tight jeans, a snap button shirt, and a pair of eBay-bought cowboy boots. He had long gray hair and was sitting on a couch with a cup of coffee. He was wearing an old shirt, wranglers, and a bandana around his neck. His large cowboy hat was upside down on the table next to him. Early on, Jack told me that his fans either ask about chord changes to his songs or tell him how much they love his records. His response: "I never listened to it. I'm not a music lover."

When Elliott was a young kid living in Brooklyn, his parents made "a big mistake" and took him to see a rodeo with Gene Autry at Madison Square Garden. "I was just totally captivated by the horses, the cowboys with their big hats, and the cattle, the longhorn cattle. Then Gene appeared as if by magic with a bright spotlight shining on him and a circular hoop that had paper stretched over it so it made a bright circle of light. That was blocking the entrance gateway to where horses ride in. His horse leaped up over the bottom of that circle and came crashing through into the light bursting through the paper like a bullet."

Elliott knew early on that Autry wasn't a real cowboy. "Nothing like the way it really is on the desert," he says. "It was a show. A very spectacular show." All of that didn't matter to Elliott. He wanted to be a cowboy, so at an early age, he ran away from home and joined the rodeo.

I was just totally captivated by the horses, the cowboys with their big hats, and the cattle, the longhorn cattle.

He got his first big break as a musician in the 1950s when he recorded a few songs for a country and folk compilation. Woody Guthrie was a dear friend of Jack's, and Jack was heavily influenced by Guthrie's songs. He eventually ended up touring Europe for many years and became a big influence on the emerging British music scene. When Jack returned from Europe, he went to visit Guthrie who had grown sick and met Bob Dylan.

I (embarrassingly) told Jack that I had dressed up as Dylan during his Rolling Thunder Revue (of which Jack was a part of) and true to character, Jack busted right into some storytelling about that famous tour. "I was the first one to put the flower in my hat on Rolling Thunder Revue. We got into the Rolling Thunder Revue hat/flower contest, who could have more flowers in their hat. At each successive show, I'd have 3 flowers, Bob had 4. I'd have 4 and he'd have 5. We were just playing around with the makeup too. I had a heart painted on my face one time. Another time I had a tear coming out of my eye. We were like rodeo clowns. I remember when Arlo [Guthrie] asked Bob why he always had that clown white on his face. Arlo said, 'What's that shit on your face?' Bob said, 'what face?'"

A few years after Elliott's daughter made The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack , a fantastic documentary about his life and carreer, Elliott decided to go into the studio and record a few quirky traditional songs that would become I Stand Alone . Lucinda Williams, Flea, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, and Sleater Kinney's Corin Tucker all appear on the album w/ Jack. "Never met them," says Jack. "They didn't even tell me they were gonna do that."

Elliott had gone into the studio, recorded a few favorites like The Carter Family's "Engine 143" or Hoagie Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues," and all of the guests were recorded afterwards. The result is an intimate look at a living legend whose voice still has the campfire elements that made him such a hero for the past 50 or so years. If you're thinking that this is an attempt to remake a version of Johnny Cash's American Recordings, you're wrong. Elliott's album is much more loose, much more unrehearsed than Cash. It's as if you're listening to Elliott pick up the guitar in his living room and sing a few of his favorites for his nieces and nephews. Most of the time, you don't even notice anyone else is playing. Elliott commands your headphones and your attention never strays from his delicate guitar picking and raspy voice. It's a true treasure.

I met Mick Jagger one time. We talked for three or four hours. Never said a word about music.

My twenty minute conversation with Elliott turned into a full hour long discussion about Bob Dylan, where to find real cowboys, Earl Scruggs, cowboy poetry, The Byrds, and more. It's obvious where the man gets his name from, as a simple question can yield a 20-minute answer full of stories that had nothing, yet everything, to do with what I was asking. The man comes from the cowboy tradition and it doesn't seem like he can stay in one place for very long. "A cowboy never walks anywhere," he told me. It's his way to ramble on about the amazing life that he's had and is still having (Elliott will be headlining a four day cowboy poetry festival in Nevada starting on February 1st).

The night climaxed when Elliott came on stage to play. He sat down by himself and played a set full of old classics like "San Francisco Bay Blues," "House Of The Rising Sun," and songs from his new album. His voice still sounded dynamite and his guitar playing never skipped a beat. He told stories (long stories) in between each song and for an hour, BB King's turned into a hot night in the horse stables of a large western ranch. People gathered around the campfire as everyone's hero, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, sang us songs, told us stories, and made us laugh.

As Jack and I were finishing up our conversation, Jack leaned over and told me, "I met Mick Jagger one time. We talked for three or four hours. Never said a word about music." Gaynelle, Jack's tour manager, looked him in the eye while speaking to me and said, "It's just a way for him to be a cowboy." Amen.

"Careless Darling" MP3

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Ramblin' Jack Elliott: 60 Minutes With An American Music Folk Hero