RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT
(August 1, 1931)
RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT (born Elliot Charles Adnopoz; August 1, 1931) is an American folk singer and performer.
Born in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents in 1931, he attended Midwood High School in Brooklyn and graduated in 1949. Elliott grew up inspired by the rodeos at Madison Square Garden, and wanted to be a cowboy. Encouraged instead to follow his father’s example and become a surgeon, Elliott rebelled, running away from home at the age of 15 to join Col. Jim Eskew’s Rodeo, the only rodeo east of the Mississippi. They traveled throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. He was only with them for three months before his parents tracked him down and had him sent home, but Elliott was exposed to his first singing cowboy, Brahmer Rogers, a rodeo clown who played guitar and five-string banjo, sang songs, and recited poetry. Back home, Elliott taught himself guitar and started busking for a living. Eventually he got together with Woody Guthrie and stayed with him as an admirer and student.
“Nobody I know—and I mean nobody—has covered more ground and made more friends and sung more songs than the fellow you’re about to meet right now. He’s got a song and a friend for every mile behind him. Say hello to my good buddy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.” Johnny Cash, The Johnny Cash Television Show, 1969
With banjo player Derroll Adams, he toured the United Kingdom and Europe. By 1960, he had recorded three folk albums for the UK record label Topic Records. In London, he played small clubs and pubs by day and West End cabaret nightclubs at night. When he returned to the States, Elliott found he had become renowned in American folk music circles. Woody Guthrie had the greatest influence on Elliott. Guthrie’s son, Arlo, said that because of Woody’s illness and early death, Arlo never really got to know him, but learned his father’s songs and performing style from Elliott. Elliott’s guitar and his mastery of Guthrie’s material had a big impact on Bob Dylan when he lived in Minneapolis. When he reached New York, Dylan was sometimes referred to as the ‘son’ of Jack Elliott, because Elliott had a way of introducing Dylan’s songs with the words: “Here’s a song from my son, Bob Dylan.” Dylan rose to prominence as a songwriter; Elliott continued as an interpretative troubadour, bringing old songs to new audiences in his idiosyncratic manner. Elliott also influenced Phil Ochs, and played guitar and sang harmony on Ochs’ song “Joe Hill” from the Tape from California album. Elliott also discovered singer-songwriter Guthrie Thomas in a bar in Northern California in 1973, bringing Thomas to Hollywood where Thomas’ music career began.
Elliott appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour and played “Longheno de Castro” in Dylan’s movie Renaldo and Clara. In the movie, he sings the song “South Coast” by Lillian Bos Ross and Sam Eskin, from whose lyric the character’s name is derived.
“My name is Longheno de Castro
My father was a Spanish grandee
But I won my wife in a card game
To Hell with those lords o’er the sea”
Elliott plays guitar in a traditional fingerpicking style, which he matches with his laconic, humorous storytelling, often accompanying himself on harmonica. His singing has a strained, nasal quality which the young Bob Dylan emulated. His repertoire includes American traditional music from various genres, including country, blues, bluegrass and folk. Elliott’s nickname comes not from his traveling habits, but rather the countless stories he relates before answering the simplest of questions. Folk singer Odetta claimed that her mother gave him the name, remarking, “Oh, Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!” His authenticity as a folksy, down-to-earth country boy, despite being a Jewish doctor’s son from Brooklyn, and his disdain for other folk singers, were parodied by the Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) in the satirical documentary A Mighty Wind in the name of their “hit” album Ramblin’. A Mighty Wind also referred to a former member of the New Main Street Singers, Ramblin’ Sandy Pitnick, a somewhat geeky-looking white man in a cowboy hat, apparently in parody of Elliott. Elliott’s first recording in many years, South Coast, earned him his first Grammy Award in 1995. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998. His long career and strained relationship with his daughter Aiyana were chronicled in her 2000 film documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack. At the age of 75, he changed labels and released I Stand Alone on the ANTI- label, with an assortment of guest backup players including members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He said his intention was to title the album Not for the Tourists, because it was recorded in response to his daughter’s request for songs he loved but never played in concert. When asked why he did not, he told her, “These songs are not for the tourists.” In 2012 he was featured on two tracks (4, 12) on the album Older Than My Old Man Now by Loudon Wainwright III.