Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – Written For American Songcatcher

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott started life out not as Ramblin’ Jack, nor even as Jack Elliott, but as Elliott Charles Adnopoz. Born to Florence Rieger and luminary doctor Abraham Adnopoz in Brooklyn, New York on August 31st, 1931, many of Elliott’s formative years were coloured by the rodeos he saw at Madison Square Garden. Through his tenure at Midwood High School, where he would graduate in 1949, Elliott Adnopoz wanted to be a cowboy. 


In fact, despite the somewhat inevitable pressure from his father to pursue a career in medicine and in the shadow of the cataclysmic world conflict of 1939-1945, Elliott rebelled and left home at 15  “to be a cowboy.”  Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2019, Elliott admitted “I didn’t have any sort of plan. I just left home.” 


In a move which could have been made by any number of characters in the classic folk tales he still sings about, Elliot soon joined Colonel Jim Eskew’s Rodeo near Washington D.C, which proudly boasted it’s existence as the only circus of its kind east of the Mississippi. Started by the likes of Wild Buffalo Bill who cashed in on the near-mythological aura surrounding the Old West, these travelling shows were making a resurgence amid the cowboy-boom of the late forties and early fifties. 


Despite being far from his childhood ideals of roaming the prairies and plains of the West, Elliott does remember watching Brahmer Rodgers, a rodeo clown entertaining the circus’ crew with songs on a guitar and a banjo. The impact this would have on the young teenager’s life is immeasurable. In a time before Elvis and Johnny Cash made kids everywhere eager to pick up the guitar, young Elliott Adnopoz knew he had to learn the instrument.


His parents, distraught and desperate, soon began distributing the fliers of their missing son that would eventually lure him back home after three months of travelling the Eastern seaboard. Return he did, but it was not long before he resumed his roving once again, singing and playing guitar first as Charles Adnopoz, which Elliott says he “thought sounded cool”, before settling on Buck Elliott.


It was Elliott’s visit to his friend and contemporary Odetta’s home, though, whereby the man we know today was christened. Knocking on her door, Elliott remembers Odetta’s mother exclaiming from the other side that “that ramblin’ Jack” had come for her. Elliott’s now infamous prefix “Ramblin’” came about not as a remark on Elliott’s itinerant lifestyle, but as a result of the already sophisticated and nebulous storytelling for which he was garnering a reputation.


By performing and busking an already substantial repertoire of music, it wasn’t long before the young Jack Elliott convened with folk titan Woody Guthrie in around 1950. Elliott remembered in 2019 how he had obtained Guthrie’s phone number from Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers. Summoning the courage to phone his hero, whom he had first heard on an old Folkways album, Elliott professed his admiration to his hero. In characteristic laconic style, Woody responded: ‘Well Jack, ya oughta come over and bring your gi-tar and we’ll knock off a couple of tunes together. Don’t come today, though — I gotta belly ache.’”


That belly ache turned out to be appendicitis, and so it was that Elliott first met his idol in person recovering in a Brooklyn hospital. Jack recalls Woody being “pretty dopey” and mumbling about not making too much noise. It was in fact Woody’s wife, Marjorie, who showed Jack Elliott around their Mermaid Avenue apartment, where like a kid in a candy store, he saw Guthrie’s famous folk weapon: a guitar bearing the phrase THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.

As an admirer and a student, Elliott went about learning all he could from his teacher, even so far as moving in with the family. So studious was he, that Guthrie’s own son admits he learnt Woody’s way of playing and performing almost exclusively from Elliott following his father’s premature passing. In fact, Arlo remembers his father telling people that Elliott sounded “more like me than I do!” Moreover, the younger Guthrie told in a 2009 interview of Elliott’s already larger-than-life idiosyncrasies, including the time Jack turned up to their home in a telephone-repair truck converted into a camper. 


Ramblin’ Jack would as often turn up to the Guthrie household in a Model T Ford as his converted camper, and take the children on long drives out to Long Island. Arlo Guthrie could never quite understand why he would stop every so often and fill up with 25 cents worth of gas; his best guess was that as an uninhibited storyteller, Elliott just wanted to talk to people and exchange stories.


Due to what is now understood to be the first symptoms of the neurological disorder Huntington’s (which would later take his life), Woody left his family with Jack Elliott as ‘sidekick’ to travel California and Florida. Whether surrounded by Pacific redwoods or beside the waters of the Gulf, Woody imparted to the impressionable Eliiott his mannerisms, his iconic inflections, and his extensive catalogue of songs, including “This Land Is Your Land”, and his collection of “Dust Bowl Ballads”. 


Jack Elliott recounted in 2019 how it was in California that Guthrie met his second wife, Anneke van Kirk. In a perturbed state, Woody was always concerned that his 21-year-old belle would leave him for the youthful, comparatively healthy 22-year-old Elliott. Jack never has forgotten that feeling of how he felt he should “take off” due to this tension.


In 1954, Jack went to practice what had been preached unto him, and toured Appalachia for nearly a year. Alongside performing, he spent much of this time immersed in the region’s significant musical, cultural and historical heritage collating it’s myriad songs and stories. His time further South also yielded the opportunity to learn first-hand from the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Champion Jack Dupree.


Upon marrying in 1955, with his banjo player Derroll Adams in tow, Elliott ventured across to the United Kingdom and Europe to proselytize his genuine blues and folk set. Performing in London, Mick Jagger has since recounted that he bought his first guitar as a result of witnessing Elliott play.


By 1960, he had already recorded three albums for London record label, Topic Records. Elliott was in his element in the emergent folk scene of the British metropolis, playing seedy dive bars by day and then heading to the veritable glamour of the city’s cabaret nightclubs by night. 


It was only on his return to the United States in 1961 that Elliott found out about his renown within American folk circles. One such fan was a young troubadour out of Minneapolis, Minnesota who had recently moved to New York City and the endlessly fashionable Greenwich Village; born Robert Allen Zimmerman, he would go on to eclipse most of his contemporaries as the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 


Elliott’s first port-of-call though on his return was to venture straight from his ship to a New Jersey hospital, where Guthrie really had been taken by Huntington’s Disease. He was ‘walking like a drunk’ if he walked at all, and Elliott lamented how you had to be ‘very patient’ in understanding what he said. With Guthrie’s health in decline, Elliott became an ambassador among the folk clubs and honky tonks for his music. With Guthrie’s untimely death in 1967, the mantle of folk’s elder-statesman passed to Ramblin’ Jack, who was still only in his mid-thirties. 


Throughout the sixties, it appeared to many that Elliott would reach mainstream popularity. Indeed, he signed to Warner Bros, and with them he released one of his most acclaimed albums Young Brigham. He covered songs by The Rolling Stones, too, and in a landmark appearance, played with Johnny Cash on his weekly television show. Cash introduced him as such:


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.[3]

Johnny Cash, The Johnny Cash Television Show, 1969


Elliott’s landmark album Young Brigham had a record cover as iconic as the songs on it, with Ramblin’ Jack atop a horse. Jack’s daughter Aiyana, born around the same time as the album’s release, remembers her first words for her father was “horsey man” due to his love of the animals. 


Never concerned for money or mainstream popularity, Elliott never made it clearer than in figuring out what to put onto the front of the record. When buying the horse, Elliott was told by the salesman that the horse feed would be tax deductible if the creature was on the album cover – Ramblin’ Jack never did remember to use the tax deduction. 


By 1975, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith appeared at one of Elliott’s shows and outlined a plan to tour smaller theatres; within weeks, Elliott was on the road again as part of the travelling circus known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. 


However, Dylan and Elliott had met long before this, the first time at the bedside of an ailing Woody Guthrie in 1961, when Ramblin’ Jack returned from England. Unexpectedly, Dylan was nearly as much a fan of Elliott as he was of Guthrie, firing off obscure tracks from some of his earliest albums. Dylan remembered how Elliott was such a confident entertainer that “it made me sick”, and it was Ramblin’ Jack who took the young Bob Dylan under his wing, even going so far as to helping the youth attain his New York City cabaret licence. 


The two would collaborate just a few years later on an early demo of “Mr Tambourine Man,” and one Woodstock barn would be the space in which both men stashed their motorcycles for the years to come. 


Reflecting in 2019, though, Elliott remembers best those times with the Revue, and the thirty-one days that nearly killed most everybody on that tour. Ramblin’ Jack admitted to Rolling Stone that he doesn’t remember being “that intense” as shown in Scorcese’s documentary on the band. Yet he does remember (just about) that there may have been copious amounts of whiskey being passed around leading to him being “wired”. 


To be sure, there were other substances available, and other stories to be shared. In fact, Ramblin’ Jack refers quite candidly to this period as his “druggiest.”Ramblin’ Jack was witness to Joni Mitchell, another member of this roving hootenanny, penning her seminal hit, ‘Coyote’ on the tour. It was in a dressing room on this tour, too, that Elliott became acquainted with Bob Weir, soon-to-be guitarist for The Grateful Dead. It would be another two decades before the pair collaborated on Elliott’s Friends Of Mine, but the foundations were laid on that whirlwind year with the outfit.


Above all else, though, the tour took its toll on everyone, and by the end of it, everyone was “fried.” Surely, this time with the Revue must have reminded the now forty-something Elliott of his time as an adolescent running away with the circus.


True to his epithet, Ramblin’ Jack continued telling his stories throughout the eighties, and resided in Texas for much of the decade. However, from a recording perspective, this period in the Lone Star State was far from prolific. The years of being “burned” by a whole host of labels was beginning to take its toll. In fact, Elliott’s next recording wouldn’t be released until the aforementioned 1998 album, on which he worked with Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Tom Waits and more. That same year, President Bill Clinton awarded our protagonist the Presidential Medal of the Arts. 


The nineties would bring the aforementioned successes, and now in his sixties, Elliott could still tour and party with the best of them. Todd Snider remembers drinking with Elliott in an Austin hotel until the sun came up, recalling how he could play just as well at four am as he could any other time. Yet this bountiful decade would preclude harder times.


In 2001, Elliott’s fifth wife, Janice, passed away. Just a week later, Elliott was opening for Merle Haggard, who was as sympathetic and consoling as his shyness allowed. Then Ramblin’ Jack’s motorhome, which was his predominant residence, burned down. A stroke also put an end to Elliott performing much of his regular set list due to the complex fingerpicking required being near impossible now. One such song he can no longer perform is Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, which Elliott first began performing in the Village in 1964; Dylan enjoyed his performance so much, he stood up and exclaimed “I relinquish her to you, Jack!”


At 90 years of age, Elliott admitted that “money” is the only reason he continues to tour, claiming he would have retired long ago if he could have afforded it. That being said, at 75, he was signing with the legendary ANTI- label, and working with acts such as X, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It seems that as long as Ramblin’ Jack draws breath, he will be rambling on.


Elliott’s unprecedented life was documented by his filmmaker daughter, Aiyana Elliott, in 2000 with the release of The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack. Despite an often strained relationship, this pseudo-biographic represented a coming together of father and daughter. Aiyana was actually instrumental in securing a long-term road manager for Elliott, after he drove from his California home to a show in Portland on his own at age 88. The two remain reasonably close today. 


It seems odd today, that someone tutored by Woody Guthrie and raised through the tumultuous times of early and mid-century America is still alive, and at that, touring so voraciously. Seemingly unable to stop, folk’s true elder-statesman eclipses his own studio work, a Presidential Medal, or the plethora of titanic names he has worked with. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is someone symbolic of blue collar graft, having lived the life of the protagonists in his songs. Indeed, it seems that the young Elliott Adnopoz really did manage to become the cowboy he so desperately wanted to be. 















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