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Country-folk singer Jack Elliott still Ramblin’ at 90

In a career spanning more than seven decades, country-folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has sustained the songs and spirit of Woody Guthrie, inspired a young Bob Dylan and been hailed as an authentic singer and cowboy poet of the American West.

Elliott celebrates his 90th birthday on Aug. 1 — the same day, he noted, that Jerry Garcia would’ve turned 79 had he lived — but he isn’t letting age keep him off the stage.

A resident of West Marin, the irrepressible troubadour known for his high lonesome voice and traditional flat-picking guitar style, is midway through a tour that’s taken him from Virginia to Maine and includes gigs around Texas.

He’ll play a solo show at Novato’s HopMonk Tavern on Friday, Sept. 17 (tickets are $30). Last Saturday, July 24, Elliott got a big ovation when he joined Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, playing the old folk song “Mule Skinner Blues.”

Near the eve of his birthday, Elliott reflected on his early introduction to the romance of the West and his lifelong relationship with music.

He was born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn in 1931, into a Jewish family. If his father, a doctor, had hoped Elliott would follow in his footsteps, he was to be disappointed.

“One day in 1940, my parents took me to the rodeo in Madison Square Garden,” Elliott said in an interview for this story. “That was a big mistake on their part. I was very, very impressed by what the cowboys did and by the humor of the rodeo announcer. It was the first rodeo I ever saw. Gene Autry was the singing star.”

Young Elliott dreamed of the cowboy life (he’d later take the first name Jack and make Elliott his surname) and couldn’t wait to be part of it.

Traveling cowboy

So at 15, he ran away to join an East Coast rodeo. He was corralled after three months on the road and returned home, but in his late teens he left again, to work grooming horses for a traveling rodeo. He never looked back.

Elliott was “embarrassed” to tell fellow cowboys he was from New York City. But, he said, “It ain’t where you’re from that counts; it’s where you’re going.”

The rodeo — and specifically a rodeo clown named Brahmer Rogers who “played banjo and guitar and sang hillbilly songs” — introduced Elliott to playing music.

“I was impressed by the way he sang and played. I thought, ‘I want to do that,’ so I started playing guitar. I got a cowboy songbook. It had diagrams (showing) where to put your fingers. ‘Red River Valley’ was the first song that I started singing.”

Though he’s written a few songs over the years, Elliott is best known for covering tunes such as Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin’” and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, recalled in the 2000 documentary “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” that Woody often said, “Jack sounds more like me than myself.”

After Dylan heard Elliott perform “Don’t Think Twice” in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe in the 1960s, he was so impressed that he shouted to Elliott, “I relinquish it (the song) to you, Jack!”

Many stories

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott met me at his friend’s home in Tomales in late June, dressed in a striped turtleneck sweater and tan corduroy pants. His bright eyes revealed his wit and intelligence. Trying to rein in the conversation would have been like trying to stay atop one of the bucking horses Elliott rode in his youth.

Rather than answer questions, he told tales of rodeo champions, hitching rides, climbing to the top of a whaling ship’s mast and hanging out with legends including Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Gregory Peck and the Clintons.

During a conversation that spanned more than three hours, Ramblin’ Jack demonstrated how to properly hold a horse’s reins. He explained that the phrase “the luck of the draw” comes from the rodeo practice of riders blindly drawing the name of the bucking horse they’ll have to mount.

And he seasoned the conversation with humor: “My wife ran away with a car thief-kidnapper. He stole my wife, my daughter and my Volkswagen bus.”

What did he miss the most? “My Volkswagen bus!” he said, laughing.

Indeed, his Ramblin’ nickname originated not from his incessant travels, but from how he tells stories. The mother of Odetta (the Black folk and jazz singer and activist) gave him the name, Elliott said. “She’d call out, ‘Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack’s here.’”

More than anything, Elliott enjoyed recounting his rodeo escapades.

If a rodeo cowboy drew a horse he didn’t want, Elliott would take the ride and earn $10, good money for a kid who started out earning $2 a day.

One time, “I was propelled out of the saddle and I was hanging by my left foot, still stuck in the stirrup. My boot came off is what saved me. I fell to the ground just underneath (the horse), and he stepped on me, oh so lightly, right here on this leg. I got a great hoof print on my leg there, tore the jeans.”

When he was 19, Elliott called Guthrie, who said, “Come over to the house; bring your guitar. We’ll knock off some tunes. But don’t come today. I got a bellyache.”

It turned out Guthrie had a ruptured appendix, so Elliott visited him in the hospital.

Elliott soon became devoted to Guthrie’s music, inhabiting his songs so fully that Arlo Guthrie credits Elliott with sustaining Woody’s legacy.

“There wouldn’t be no Bob Dylan without Ramblin’ Jack Elliott,” Arlo Guthrie said in the “Ramblin’ Jack” documentary.

“There wouldn’t be half the people that we all know and love, unless somebody had been there and was able to translate not just the songs but the actual doing of it. Jack lived it. Other people talk about it. He lived it.”

NYC folk scene

From 1955 to 1961, Elliott spent nearly all his time in the U.K. and Europe, playing small clubs and bringing American folk music to receptive audiences.

In 1961, Elliott returned to New York and became a mainstay in the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village.

He never sought or achieved mega-stardom, being content to play for people who paid attention to his songs. (His pet peeve is audience members who talk while he’s singing or telling a story.)

Elliott had a couple of moments of fame in the 1990s. His album “South Coast” won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1995. Three years later, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton.

“I got a lot of phone calls, people telling me, ‘You’re gonna be famous, Jack.’ I said, ‘I’ve been famous all my life, just nobody knows about it.’”

Though he despises air travel, Elliott got on a plane in early June to pay tribute to his friend and fellow folk singer Jerry Jeff Walker, who died last fall.

“We flew on United,” he said, “but I didn’t bring a guitar as they’re famous for breaking guitars.”

He was accompanied by his friend Venta Leon. In 2019, Leon went with Elliott to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco.

“What was really incredible was watching his fellow musicians see him and react to him, completely flip out,” Leon said. “He has influenced so many people who are big stars. And to this day he is just as humble as can be.”

Asked about his contribution to American music, Elliott said simply, “I think there is one, but I don’t want to get a swelled head or I’ll have to buy another hat.”

Then he somehow segued seamlessly into a story about the SS United States being built to reach 34.5 knots to just edge out the fastest British ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth II, which had a top speed of 34 knots.

Miraculously, as he begins his tenth decade, Elliott’s life has been like many of his stories, with an attention-grabbing, intriguing beginning, a meandering middle and no end.

Just as he wants it.

Michael Shapiro writes about the performing arts and travel.

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