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Monday, Jan. 25, 2010

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s ‘Never-Ending Highway’

Hank Reineke sheds light on an elusive legend

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Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a seminal and frequently overlooked character in the folk music revivals of Britain and America in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s not hard to discern why he has been overlooked, given that he is such an elusive and unreliable character.

Elusive, in that his works have always been tucked under either traditionalists such as Woody Guthrie (who he befriended and imitated) or revolutionaries such as Bob Dylan (who he also befriended; but it was Dylan who imitated Ramblin’ Jack); and unreliable in that he, for example, failed to make it in time to accept the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award in New York City on behalf of the new inductee, Woody Guthrie, at the second year of the awards. Elliott was initially unreachable, rambling around somewhere in Texas for no apparent reason. By the time he was tracked down by his frustrated agent, his first response was, “You…go to hell, buddy. I don’t like New York.”

When he was finally convinced, Elliott arrived wearing dirty clothes amid the tuxedo crowd at the Waldorf Astoria and wandered onstage only for the all-star jam, playing no instrument but rather singing along, bemused, while Neil Young as Bob Dylan, in full face makeup and cape, sang “All Along the Watchtower.”

Elliott’s life, so expertly researched and elegantly described in Hank Reineke’s authoritative Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: The Never-Ending Highway (Scarecrow Press), reads like that—always rumpled, never on time and just casually mixing with those he influenced on the sidelines or at a distance.

Ramblin’ Jack was never a careerist. Reineke lovingly describes him as being such an authentic troubadour and hobo that his opportunities for fame either came too late or, when they did arrive, were bypassed for the chance to rodeo or just bum around.

Elliott Charles Adnopoz, the Jewish, middle-class son of a very respectable Dr. and Mrs. Abraham Adnopoz of Brooklyn, N.Y., saw the World Championship Rodeo at Madison Square Garden in 1940 when he was 9 years old and instantly became a cowboy. Witnessing Gene Autry there, he, at first, thought that it was “sissy when Gene Autry sang” in favor of twirling six-shooters and riding his horse. But Burl Ives’ folk songs ultimately combined in Elliott the wish of being a cowboy with that of wanting to sing about it, transforming a dreamy kid from Flatbush into a rugged American cowboy and original folk singing stylist.

By 1951, at the beginning of a long-lasting friendship, Elliott Adnopoz was rambling and singing with Woody Guthrie. Having met him briefly once before, Elliott said to Guthrie that his name had changed—yes, he was the one who had been introduced to him as “Buck Elliott,” but now it was “Jack.” Woody said, “There’s a thousand Jacks for every Buck.” But it was too late. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was the name of Woody Guthrie’s new sidekick.

It’s no overstatement to say that Elliott underscored Guthrie’s importance and made Dylan possible. By faithfully taking Guthrie’s songs to a wider audience and having faith in Dylan, another dreamer (but with ambition and rare artistic vision), Elliott has been lost between two worlds—the venerable old one and the hip new one. Even after the 2000 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, the subject remains a hidden secret.

Literally the lynchpin in the 1950s for the British skiffle trend and the ’60s folk/blues revival in the United States, Elliott still makes outstanding recordings that don’t necessarily fall by the wayside but certainly are not as prominent as they should be, if there is any sense at all to what becomes the standard or, even more outrageously in question, what becomes popular. But there is no sense, here, and perhaps the mystery of this important artist has to do with the fact that he shows up when he feels like it and does so later than expected. With The Never-Ending Highway we now have no excuse for missing him. Within this important book we have a complete history of an era, of a musical tradition. Ramblin’ Jack was not only there, but was one of its significant instigators. Guthrie often said that Elliott performed his songs better than he did. And in his autobiography, Dylan finally admits that he took everything with which he began from Elliott. Ramblin’ Jack is more than likely at a rodeo right now and will not promote himself, though he has promoted all that is American folk song tradition, old and new. He is as invisible as the strangest characters in folk song narratives, haunting our imagination with nameless importance and devout spirit. He is the song more than the singer.