Monday, June 21, 2010

Me & Ramblin' Jack

A few weeks back, I was able to apply the Golden Horseshoe and worm my way up next to a living legend: Ramblin' Jack Elliott. I could hardly believe it.

The only thing difficult about it was trying to impress people with this meeting - nobody (except Fang, of course) knows who he is, which is a dadgum tragedy. Hence, this post.

Talk about re-inventing yourself, he began life in the summer of 1931 as Elliot Charles Adnopoz, a Jew born in Brooklyn - hardly the Western troubadour he is today. After seeing a few rodeos at Madison Square Gardens, little Elliot was entranced by the Western characters and iconography. As he grew older, his father pressured him to follow in his footsteps and become a surgeon. Instead, Elliot ran off at 15 and joined Col. Jim Eskew's Rodeo, the only rodeo east of the Mississippi.

Three months later, his parents tracked him down and brought him back to New York but it was too late, Elliot had already glimpsed his future after watching a singing cowboy/rodeo clown. So, he began teaching himself guitar and performing in the streets for cash. He'd take some lessons from his buddy, Woody Guthrie, and a character soon began to take shape.

After touring Europe and recording albums, he came to America as a folk star. Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, had lost his father at a young age and ended up learning his father's songs and performing style from Jack. Meanwhile, there was a new kid named Robert Zimmerman hanging around Jack who couldn't get enough - wanting to learn his songs, his style and possibly the concept of changing his entire persona. I've got one song, recorded live, where you hear Jack tell an audience, "And here comes Bobby Dylan and his new harmonica holder ..." 

In fact, Jack is often described as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan - a key role in the history of American music. (There was even a rumor going around that Dylan was Jack's son, not just his apprentice.)

In addition to Guthrie and Dylan, Jack also hung out with Jack Kerouac and got high with James Dean. That he also became a good friend to Johnny Cash was inevitable.

Here's Jack in 1969 performing on Cash's show although his best appearance on that show was in 1971 with Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs performing 'Muleskinner Blues.' (The note he begins holding at 4:13 is legendary.)

Also, Ramblin' Jack's nickname did not come from his penchant for wandering the globe but for the countless stories he relates before answering the simplest of questions. Odetta claimed that it was her mother who gave him the name, remarking, "Oh Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!" It's still true, Jack remains master of the tangent.
"Nobody - and I mean nobody - has covered more ground and made more friends and sung more songs than Rambling Jack."
--Johnny Cash

The first time I saw Jack perform was in Austin, during SXSW, at St. David's Episcopal Church. He shared the bill with a few others, including Jolie Holland and Billy Bragg. When Jolie tried to perform solo, she was struck by what I can only guess was severe stage fright. She choked up and could hardly speak. Oh, it was awful to witness.

Ramblin' Jack quickly came to her rescue and comforted here right there in front of us all; I'll never forget it. "There, there, darlin', it happens to all of us. How about we sing a song together?" The audience burst into applause, relieved for a solution. Billy came out too and their collective performance was one of the highlights of the festival.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when Ramblin' Jack visited my favorite Denver music spot, Swallow Hill. As a volunteer in the main hall, I was helping folks find their seats. All of a sudden, I hear a cowboy twang aimed right at me: "You look like a woman who can get things done." It is indeed an old cowboy - ten gallon hat, boots, giant belt buckle - the whole deal.

"I am that woman," I said. "What do you need?"

He then handed me the biggest silver belt buckle I'd ever seen and said, "I want you to put this on the stool. It's for Jack and I want him to see it when he comes onstage." Cowboy was a champion horse breeder and one of his horses - a horse that Jack had admired - had recently won it.

I did as told and sure enough, when Jack came onstage, he 'ooohed' and 'aaaahed' over the shiny belt buckle. "I don't know where this came from but I sure thank you for the gift," he said and everyone turned to look at me.

At 79, Jack is getting on in years but he still delivers with rambling stories and old yodeling cowboy picking. As the show drew to a close, I vowed to deliver a kiss and get a photo. And with the usual folk music backstage security (a long curtain and a guy asleep on a folding chair), I easily worked my way into the green room.

Curiously, when I first entered, Jack had just turned to a tall man, plaintively asking, "What that a good performance? Or was it just okay? Just tell me." (Just goes to show you, that no matter how many people call you 'legend', you're still only as good as your last performance.)

As the only woman in the room (and the only one under 50), Jack and his gang all turned to look at me. I came with no strategy and figured honesty might just work. "I'm here to deliver a kiss to Jack and to get a photo!" 

Jack's eyes widened and he held out his arms: "Oh, boy! It's been a long time since I had a groupie!" Everyone laughed. We got a couple of photos and chatted about life in the Bay Area, where he lives. ("I never go into The City anymore, they only serve you white wine there.")

Sigh. They just don't make Jewish cowboys like Jack anymore. 


Diane Drake said...

Great story -- I loved it!

quirkychick said...

I actually know who he is - and boy was he a hottie back in the day.

Another great story Heather!

(Saw Bob Newhart the other night out at dinner - took all my self restraint not to go over and remind him about the time he met my friend Heather on a flight)

ClizBiz said...

The Bob Newhart flight is one my favorite memories. I forced myself on him as well...although nobody every seems to mind.

hotdrwife said...

Hubba, hubba.

hotdrwife said...

@ClizBiz: Horsehoe. Butt.


Where's the Bob Newhart story, or do I need to go back in the archives?

Better yet - haul your sweet ass over to my house with Reid and tell me yourself over strawberry basil mojitos and whatever else.

Fang Bastardson said...

Thanks for the shout out!

Xa said...

You are such a born storyteller.

Been a while since a wandered by your blog, and this reminded me why it's always worth a visit.

ClizBiz said...

Thanks, Christa! Glad to have you stop by whenever. As for stories, I've got a backlog ...