Ramblin’ Jack

by Sarah Graalman


Ramblin’ Jack Elliott strutted on stage. Not like a pimp, or someone with a chip on his shoulder, but as a man who has earned this walk. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is 80. He just got back from California and is now headed up and down the East Coast after a streak up the West, because what else is he going to be doing at the dawn of his ninth decade? I went to the Highline Ballroom in May to see him sing some songs, tell some stories, and then tell some more stories. That is what Ramblin’ Jack does: He travels about and spins tales out at his audience, his stories and songs weaving in and out of each other and going nowhere specific. There are no themes or lessons to much of what he’s performing, which I think is the point. His stories hitch as far back as 60 years ago—when he and Woody Guthrie were traveling about the country and Elliott was crashing on the Guthrie couch in Queens—and as recently as last month, when a train he was traveling on out West struck and killed two motorists whose car was parked on the tracks. Jack’s got a lot of stories to tell.

“You thought that story was leading to a song. You were wrooong,” Elliott dryly joked after one long story about showing up 24 hours late to a gig in LA so he could catch a rodeo in West Texas.

* * *

He is funny, clear-headed, quick-tongued. His voice has a bit more warble to it than it did in the past videos I’d seen of him, all twinkle-eyed and floppy haired on The Johnny Cash Show. But if ever you wanted a link to the cowboy and folk heroes of the past,who fought and rumbled around the country when that sort of thing was still done, then Ramblin’ Jack may be your last chance.

It is not a fairy tale, the meeting of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It is the story of a folk hero, about to lose his mind from Huntington’s Chorea, who was befriended in the early 1950s by a 19-year-old rambler named Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Elliott (born Elliot Adnopoz) had heard Guthrie’s recordings as a teen and was bowled over by the bottom-gut honesty of his songs and delivery.

No, the meeting of Jack and Woody is a tale in which an authentic Okie, who’d spun folk songs of true-grit gold from his life as a hobo and Dust Bowl survivor riding boxcars, was able in pass along his songs and style to a perfect mimic and eager student in Elliott. Ramblin’ Jack’s learnin’ was so spot on, Guthrie was known to say, “Jack sounds more like me than I do.”

Even today, hearing Elliott slip into a Woody story or song, it’s as if the ghost of Guthrie has taken flight. There is very little footage of Guthrie, but there’s enough audio to know when you’re hearing someone who learned firsthand. Elliott, when tuned to the key of Guthrie, is a frequency that hits with perfect pitch. Yet, he and Guthrie popped into this world quite differently.

* * *

He was the son of a Jewish doctor and schoolteacher in Brooklyn, a pedigree that Elliott snorts at today. His opinion, since he’d heard it as a 15-year-old runaway, was, “It’s not where you’re from, but where you’re headed.” Jack Elliott was headed out from the high-rises of the East to see the world as a cowboy poet. As a kid in Brooklyn, Elliott adamantly rejected his parents’ wishes that he become a doctor, and instead was drawn to airliners and cowboys—things that moved. He got into cowboy music listening to Grand Ole Opry late at night, captivated by the sounds of the Carter Family and Gene Autry. He dreamed of the range, of cowboys and freight trains, and fantasized about breaking free from the confines of Linden Boulevard.

He ran away with two poet friends. They tried to hitch a ride on a semi at the base of the George Washington Bridge, but the driver, headed to North Carolina, could only take one of the three boys. Elliott said he’d take the ride, and would see them down South. He never saw his friends again.

Elliott got a job working at a rodeo out of Washington, D.C., and says of that initial journey fleeing the concrete jungle, “I’ve been cowboy ever since.” He changed his name because his birth name was hard, even for him, to say. Not long after, a man he was working for at the rodeo saw a “missing children” posted for a boy from New York City, who looked mysteriously like Elliott. He was pulled aside and pled his case, saying he was embarrassed to be from New York City. Nonetheless, Elliott was sent back to the city, but his journey had officially begun.

Back in New York, he began practicing his guitar picking, planting himself and his guitar in Washington Square Park alongside the other crooners of the West Village. One day, he heard Guthrie on the radio and was drawn to his rugged sound. He liked that he didn’t try to “pretty it up.”

“It was just real,” Elliott said, “the way workin’ folks truly spoke.”

Honestly, what he was drawn to was the idea of living on the road. Of not sugarcoating the experience, but of hearing the stories of those who really were out there, living off the land, moving through the world quickly and honestly. If ever a singer and storyteller had lived off the land, Woody Guthrie was it. Though Guthrie’s voice wasn’t pretty in the traditional sense, it was grounded and strong. There was realness to it.

Elliott went and saw Guthrie perform in the West Village of Manhattan, where Guthrie was playing requests for a nickel apiece. Guthrie was taken by Elliott, so the party continued on to the Guthrie household in Queens. Within a few days, he was living on the Guthrie’s couch out at Howard Beach—clowning around with the children, Arlo and Nora, and attempting to learn everything he could from Woody’s plainspoken musical ways.

Elliott became a part of the family—a mysterious Brooklyn-born cowboy wanderer, crashing on the couch of an Okie in Queens. The Guthries were in long mourning over the tragic death of their first born, Cathy Ann, and Woody’s battle with Huntington’s chorea disease had begun its slow, devastating work. Even if it went unacknowledged, the reality of it was surely deep in Woody’s head. Into this stricken home comes a picker named Ramblin’ Jack—a calm, perfect mimic and a dry and confident young man eager to learn everything Guthrie had to offer.

In fact, Guthrie would never teach Elliott in any traditional sense. He’d just play, instructing that he wasn’t gonna teach him, but he could steal whatever he’d like. Just like Lead Belly had instructed Guthrie years earlier on the road. “Elliott was his protégé,” Nora Guthrie would say years later. “[Guthrie] had someone to hand over his techniques and stories to. He knew he didn’t have time.”

Elliott’s mimicry was so spot-on that Woody could see himself reflected back. The effects of his disease, and of his decline, were sharp truths for Guthrie to deal with. Through Elliott, he was watching his mind and body fail him.

Huntington’s chorea is an inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It has a devastating impact on a person’s functional abilities in movement and cognitive thinking and results in psychiatric disorders. Woody lived in heartbreaking denial that he was losing his powers. After his diagnosis, he periodically fled from New York City, in a series of ramshackle tours across the states, with Elliott frequently serving as his cross-country companion.

* * *

On one of these final treks, Woody’d hitched back out to California, looking to take a third wife, in hopes it would make him feel virile again. He met and married Anneke, a 20-year-old who left her then-new husband for a whirlwind life with Woody. Guthrie silently and desperately believed his condition had improved.

Along the way, the pair hooked up with Elliott, who was still popping in and out of Guthrie’s travels around the country. Arlo Guthrie has said in interviews that Jack Elliott was the only friend around in his father’s declining years who could put up with his erratic behavior exacerbated by the road. Woody and Anneke decided to venture out to some land in Florida that had belonged to a friend named Stetson Kennedy, and Elliott drove them out in his Model A Ford truck. The three of them lived together in an old gutted-out bus, until Guthrie became frustrated by having his likeness, and illness, mirrored back to him and kicked Elliott off the land. During that trip, Guthrie caught his arm on fire, which seemed to shock him back into the reality of his disease, as well as the memory of the fire-born incidents that had shrouded the Guthries in tragedy. The newlyweds, with Anneke pregnant, attempted to settle back in New York.

When his brief marriage to Anneke crumbled due to the advancing effects of his disease, Woody took one last, tragic trek across the states. He got arrested more than once for vagrancy and public intoxication. Elliott was along for portions of this trip. Once he even received a postcard from a jail in a far-off town after Woody vanished while Elliott was out buying beer. Guthrie sent word that he was in jail in Olympia, Washington, and Elliott went to collect him.

* * *

Elliott left to go abroad with his first wife for nearly five years in 1955 and became a hit in Europe. While he was away, his legend in the folk scene back in New York blossomed. Having been on the open road with Guthrie, Elliott had lived the stories so many singers and songwriters made up. He came back home in 1961 to adoration and a mythology of his own. The day Elliott returned to New York, he played a gig with his parents in the audience, and finally admitted he was a boy from Brooklyn.

After the show, Elliott went straight to the hospital where Guthrie lay deteriorating. At the master’s feet sat a young, plump-faced kid from Minnesota about to reinvent himself as Bob Dylan. As Elliott had been before, Dylan wanted to know everything there was to know about Guthrie, how he’d traveled, what his life was like on the road, and most importantly, how he played. Elliott responded to the young Dylan as Woody had years earlier, “Damned if I’m gonna give it to you. You can steal it … how do you think Woody learned from Lead Belly?” repeating Guthrie’s refrain on the methods of folk-music tutelage.

A new mentorship began, with Dylan hanging around and even getting the apartment down the hall from Elliott’s, as his style of singing and storytelling began to ring in that familiar Woody way. At clubs, Elliott and Dylan would perform together, being jokingly introduced as father and son. It flattered Elliott, who seemed not to realize Dylan was a hero in the making. Guthrie seemed to know, and would ask at times “Where’s the boy?” He thought Dylan’s voice was one of the truest and best he’d heard in years. Though Dylan had never been on the road, his words were honest, and he would set the stage for a new rebellion in American music.

Dylan absorbed everything he saw, read, and heard in those early years, employing the wanderlust of Guthrie and Elliott but flipping it. He pontificated and plucked away at the new introspections and yearnings of his own generation. You can thickly hear the “Guthrie” in his voice in his first recordings. One of his earliest tunes, “Song to Woody,” is an ode to the idea of what Guthrie had seen in his young life, and elaborated on what sort of a world Dylan was finding as he embarked on his own. Dylan was not a cowboy—far from it—and neither was Elliott. But they took inspiration from the stories Guthrie mapped out before them, shaping them to their own pursuits.

Both times I’ve seen Elliott play, he’s heartbreakingly strummed “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Dylan. I used to think it was because Elliott had been hurt by Dylan after Dylan’s fame exploded. The truth is, as told by Elliott this past May, he once played it one night at Café Wha? in the village. Dylan happened to be standing in the back of the bar, unbeknownst to Elliott. The song ended, and Dylan yelled, “I bequeath it to you.” Even now, the song remains Ramblin’ Jack’s.

* * *

Woody Guthrie came out of Oklahoma and Texas and from the travels and travails of his life, and his songs and his art from those experiences. His songs became the songs of America at that time. He said repeatedly that he was going to let his journey shape him. That the journey ended for the three in a hospital in upstate New York says much about the canon of American folk music, where it had been and where it was headed.

There is a gut-wrenching arc to Guthrie’s life in his final 15 years, a tragic end after all of the wandering, singing, writing, learning, and growing. This poor, nearly orphan of a child educated himself in libraries, and out in the world on the backs of trains and trucks poured his journey out. He went on his journey, and we got the songs and the accompanying legend. His story sprung out from his humble roots. Are we where we come from, or where we’re going to? Are we allowed to be authentic, even if we make our legends up out of thin air? Drawn to the juxtaposing natures of Ramblin’ Jack and Woody Guthrie, I am a child of odyssey, bound more by roots than home.

The Oklahoma history I learned in school included the incongruous bookends of the Land Run—with us wee kids playing settlers once a year on playgrounds, eating beef jerky and chasing Manifest Destiny—and the Dust Bowl, with a little of the five “civilized” tribes thrown in to balance the record. I learned about “This Land is Your Land” but never about why Woody was such an unsung hero in Oklahoma, however much music he recorded. And I had to leave Oklahoma to learn that. When I settled in New York, I began to marvel that he’d done so before me.

Ten years ago, I was standing outside Bottom Line Cabaret in the West Village with a few friends who were also Guthrie fans. We’d gone there to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott for the first time. One of my friends said, “Guthrie was a true New Yorker, in our style.”

As a 23-year-old with a big chip on my shoulder, I said, “No. He’s an Okie.”

“No. He was a New Yorker,” and so on until I stopped talking to him.

Conversely, Ramblin’ Jack was a New Yorker who’d been skirting that fact for years, and has lived a life as authentic and true as anyone else’s. That night, as I sat in a bar and listened to a man sing songs and tell stories that sounded a lot like home to me, I realized how Guthrie could be both.