Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the legendary folk singer who passed Woody Guthrie's legacy on to Bob Dylan, turned 75 Monday. And after decades of watching more driven performers enjoy the success he's never experienced, now he's ready to get serious about his career.
“I've never had that (drive), but I'm starting to get it now, belatedly. I figure, what the hell? I've been asleep at the wheel all this time,” Elliott said. “I'd like to get another motor home so I can travel in comfort, because that was the only time I did enjoy traveling around playing gigs. My motor home burned to the ground two weeks after my wife passed away here (Point Reyes, where he's lived for 15 years).”
Careerwise, he was steadied by a Grammy for the 1996 album “Southcoast” and a 1999 National Medal of Arts, and his current musical home is Anti-Records, known for harboring punk bands and, at times, country icon Merle Haggard. His new album, the impressive “I Stand Alone,” finds Elliott going solo when he's delivering such vintage tunes as Hoagie Carmichael's “Hong Kong Blues” and the Carter Family's “Engine 143.”
On several songs Elliott is joined by bassist Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), drummer DJ Bonebrake (X), accordionist David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and dobro player Nels Cline, as well as vocalists Lucinda Williams and Corin Tucker (of the soon-to-be-missed Sleater-Kinney). Actually, Elliott was literally alone on those songs, as well.
“I've never met those people. They were added on in L.A. in the studio. I've heard of them, but I've never met them face-to-face,” Elliott said. “The recording business is done in studios and they use mirrors. It's not a real thing. It's like movies.”
In contrast, “The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack,” the 2000 movie documentary shot by Elliott's daughter, Aiyana, is very much the real thing. It depicts the cowboy-intrigued Ramblin' Jack, born Elliott Adnopoz and the son of a Jewish Brooklyn doctor, as he first ran away (at age 14) to join the rodeo, and then, a half-century ago, to London and on to Europe.
Having absorbed the American folk music of Guthrie and Leadbelly, and brandishing an oversized cowboy image, Elliott became an immediate sensation in Britain. Intriguingly, he mirrored that success there earlier this year when he performed at the ultra-hip happening All Tomorrow's Parties. “It was amazing. It seems like they've been laying in wait for me,” Elliott said. “They're all new young people.”
After three years of hard traveling in the late 1950s, Elliott returned to New York City. Guthrie was in the hospital, fighting a long battle with the degenerative disease Huntington's chorea, and Elliot went to visit. “And there was Bob Dylan. I didn't know who he was, had never heard of him. And he'd been hanging out and visiting Woody in the hospital for several months by this time – this was November of '61.”
Elliott, whose nickname probably derives less from his travels than his detail-rich, tangent-prone stories, was impressed by the young Dylan.
“I was amazed by that kid. And he was, of course, always asking me a lot of questions about different things and, “How do you play that, anyway?' ” Elliott said. “I'd show it to him, I didn't mind. He was a pleasant person to hang out with. A little strange, a little shy.”