RAMBLIN' JACK ELLIOT
interviewed by David Ensminger
They say he showed up at Woody Guthrie's house sometime in the 1950s ... and stayed for two years. No one better personifies the link between Guthrie's generation and the folk boom of the 1960s than Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Thirsty Ear's David Ensminger recently caught up with Ramblin' Jack (not an easy task) to discuss his never-ending life on the road.
What distinguishes you from songwriters you enjoy today, such as Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, and Richard Thompson?
I don't write songs, I'm not a singer-songwriter. I've been misnomered as a singer-songwriter. I've only written four songs in 40 years. I don't go around writing. I wish I could write. It's like wanting to learn how to build a boat. I've been studying boat building for fifty years now and don't know a thing about it because I haven't applied myself in a consistent manner for more than a little while at a time, and it takes much more attention than that to learn how to be good airplane pilot or boat builder or songwriter.
So what are you, a storyteller?
I'm a storyteller and a guitar picker. I'm a picker and a driver. Can't even work the Internet. I have a computer in the house, but I rarely go in that room. I am very slow to learn about these electronic things. I have a cell phone and I used it a couple of times but I still can't understand how to make it work. The thing keeps telling me I have lots of messages. But in order to get your messages, you have to dial certain numbers, numbers that you make up as your I.D. number, so I chose a certain year that something happened in my life, which is four digits, which is my I.D. number, and you dial your cell phone number and then you dial your I.D. number, and I get a message that says, you have dialed the wrong number. So, what do I do now? I wasn't stupid before I got the cell phone. Now I got the cell phone and I am stupid.
Your name comes from Odetta's mom saying, "That Jack Elliot, he sure can ramble." Also, Bobby Neuwirth claims to be the inventor of that name, although I think that Odetta's mom did it earlier. But you learned the art of storytelling and talking from truck drivers who gave you rides?
Well yeah, just like Jack Kerouac, who would say when we'd walk down the street together, " I love the language of bums." He was inspired by that, and I was too. I loved the way Woody Guthrie spoke. Woody had that potpourri of slang from all over the country.
Kerouac read you the entire manuscript of On The Road in his Bleeker St. apartment?
Yeah, he did.
How did you feel about it?
I think I related to it quite well. Some of it seemed like my own experiences, and there were a lot of things he described that I had never done before. And that was three years before the book was published.
It was on one continuous roll.
It was a roll of paper, the thing the Teletype machine used to use.
You've released more material in the last seven years than you've done all together since the 1960s. What accounts for this reversal of fortune?
For one thing, one of my albums that the record company Red House Records released (South Coast) won a Grammy. Then I had to rent a tuxedo and go to the Grammys and that was a lot fun. Of course, I met a lot of stars in the music world and important people in the music business and that sort of catapulted me into another level I guess. Then also, I was teamed up with Roy Rogers, who has produced my last two albums. Roy has been a great help to me, keeping me more organized and more like it ought to be.
Whose idea was it to get together all your friends, like Arlo Guthrie, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, and Tom Waits, for the Friends of Mine CD?
Roy and my wife's. My departed wife. She's deceased.
It was dedicated to Townes Van Zandt, but you did not play on the new Townes tribute record. Were you asked?
No, I wasn't and I'm not exactly upset about it either way. I enjoyed Townes' company when I saw him and when I was with him, but Townes was a heavy drinker, and I did not enjoy his company to the full because he was always drunk and it got in the way. That sort of prevented me from being a true worshipper of Townes Van Zandt. However, I think he was a very talented writer, like so many other great writers who are alcoholics. My own dearly, dearly beloved deceased wife also died of liver failure. So, I have a thing about alcohol. I also watched Woody Guthrie being drunk a lot. So I've been dealing with alcoholics my whole life. It's kind of a losing proposition.
Were you surprised by how well your daughter's film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack was received? I know you were a bit sick of having the camera poked in your face for three years.
We're better friends than ever now. In fact, I just spoke to her half an hour ago. She lives here in Maine.
Did the film also catapult you to another level?
Yeah, it led me to meeting lots and lots of strange people who never would have known me that have seen the movie and liked it. She wouldn't even let me see it until it was right there in the middle of the [Sundance] film festival and I went to see it in an audience of three hundred people. I was a little bit shy about it, but it turned out to be a wonderful film and I loved it. We did a Q&A right afterwards together.
But she did capture you in full grump mode, which was a bit uncomfortable?
Oh, it's sort of hard to see what a grump I really am along with everybody else seeing it.
You've influenced everybody from Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger to the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, but how have they influenced you?
They all inspired me to realize that what I am doing is a nice thing to do.... Arlo's style of storytelling is pretty much obviously copied from mine. I've known Arlo since he was four years old.
People attach the terms obscurity and legend to you, especially after you left the Warner Bros. label in the 1960s. Do you prefer that obscurity, or your newfound fame?
Boy, I think it's good and getting better because if I am going to travel at all I am going to need to have a new bus. My motor home burned to the ground right after my wife died. It was a fantastic piece of incredibly bad luck. The insurance company has not paid me a penny yet, but I am still patiently waiting and expect that they are going to cut loose and give me some money for the loss of the motor home because it was burned in a fire that was caused by a building burning nearby in a boat yard.
It was my main home. The only home I actually owned. I live in a rented hou se, so it was like having your only home burn to the ground. But I didn't feel any emotional distress about it at all because I was so wasted from the loss of my wife two weeks before that I was totally numb and never able to get too upset about the loss of the motor home. I just want to get reimbursed for the loss.
Just to get back on the road and survive?
I used to love it but when I lost my wife I didn't have room for any more grief. Grief is so over-powering.
The New York Times film critic who covered the Ballad of Rambin' Jack called Bob Dylan a "thorn in your side." Yet, you were in the Rolling Thunder Revue in the 1975 and till this day cover "Lay Lady Lay" and "Don't Think Twice." So, are there leftover hard feelings from the 1960s?
That's not a good quote. They might have said it, but I didn't say it, and I am not responsible for what the New York Times says. That was a poor choice of words on their part. I don't remember reading it, but I guess I don't remember reading a whole lot of stuff. I'm not surprised that you read it. I am sure they did say something like that. I am not surprised they said something like that. He wasn't a thorn in my side, he's just not a lot of fun to have as a friend because he's never around and doesn't call me up and I can't reach him very well and don't want to. He actually sent me a birthday greeting last year when I turned 70. I thought that was wonderful. I got a telegram from him.
That's a real change of heart it seems.
Well yeah, but I hear all kinds of surprising things about Bob and his new personality and his new shows and stuff. I'd like to go out of my way and see one of his concerts. I haven't been to one in about 6-7 years. Last time I went was with another good friend of Bob's supposedly, Maria Muldaur. He didn't even say hello to either one of us, but I think it was because he didn't have his glasses on. He didn't know we were there. He's blind as a bat without his glasses. He can't see a thing more than five feet away from him.
You've said, "It's been hard for me to sit down unless it's on some kind of horse or truck."
(laughs) I just rode a horse in a rodeo parade in Colorado, a very frisky horse too, and this is with a brand new hip. I just got a total hip replacement on one side ten months ago. I was walking with crutches for a while, then I was walking with a cane and then I finally put the cane away and been going on hikes and doing pretty good.
Are those American sensibilities of restless freedom and the need to be on the road dying with the Internet, couch potato generations?
It's dying in me. I really don't want to go on the road much anymore. I'm tired of airports. I can't stand the way they treat you at airports and airplanes. But if I had my own little truck I could enjoy a few more years of going down the road and doing shows and stuff, but the world is getting so over-crowded with traffic on the roads and at airports, and with all this war time stuff while travelling, it's not really a lot of fun anymore.