Jack Elliott: Still Ramblin’ at 92

If you ever have the opportunity to speak with folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, you quickly learn how he earned the sobriquet “Ramblin’.” Ask him a question and you’ll get more than you bargained for. The answer will be in there, but it will come wrapped in vivid, colorful and ceaselessly entertaining packaging, taking the conversation far afield. And that endearing quality is also on display whenever the folk revivalist and icon – now 92 years of age – appears in front of an audience.

A teenage Elliott began his life in music circa 1946, after a brief stint in a traveling rodeo. Running away from home and trying to be a cowboy at age 15 “was a great adventure,” he says, “but it was a stupid thing to do.” Inspired by bullfighting clowns who played guitar when they weren’t performing, he focused on learning guitar even after being apprehended by his parents and taken back to Brooklyn.

As he became more proficient on guitar, Elliott started jamming in Greenwich Village with the New Lost City Ramblers; that association led to a fateful encounter with Woody Guthrie. Elliott’s musical persona developed around Guthrie’s style and songs. He would go on to influence a generation of folk musicians, including Bob Dylan. Between his 1956 album debut Woody Guthrie’s Blues and his most recent studio release (2009’s A Stranger Here), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has done important work bringing traditional folk music to a wider audience.

For a figure who’s so revered in the world of folk music, Elliott is notable as an interpreter rather than a songwriter. “I’ve only written two songs,” he says, understating the case: a look at his accumulated songwriting credits suggests a number closer to seven. One of those “two” is the celebrated “912 Green,” first heard on Elliott’s 1968 LP Young Brigham. “It’s a long story song,” he says. “A talking blues. It’s about eleven minutes long.” (It’s closer to seven.) “I’d like to write more,” he says, noting that he owns three typewriters. “Everybody recommends me to use a computer, but I’m not good with computers. I’m better with steam engines.”

The story of how the man born Elliott Adnopoz ended up with the name by which he’s known is in itself a tale. Two tales, in fact. And while the story has been related countless times, the consummate storyteller seems to reveal new details, fresh nuances with each telling.

Calling himself Buck Elliott, he first headed out West “to be a troubadour like Woody,” landing in San Francisco. There he met a man who allowed him to bunk on his docked schooner. “He introduced me to his mother as Jack,” Elliott deadpans, “and I didn’t want to embarrass him.” So Jack it would be.

The “Ramblin’” part of his name came “not because I travel a lot,” he explains without having been asked. “I was telling [folk singer] Odetta a long story about a Model A Ford I bought from a farmer down in Santa Ana for only fifteen dollars,” he says. “So her mother dubbed me Ramblin’ Jack.” The name stuck.

Elliott’s inimitable way with a story has won him generations of fans and admirers. “My artist friends are all very jealous of the fact that I get instant rewards,” he says. “[Audiences] clap the minute I finish singing. Sometimes people start clapping right now, before I haven’t even finished the song!”

As a revered folklorist and performer, Elliott knows a thing or two about how to work a crowd, how to connect with the audience. And he’s forthright when sharing his thoughts on how to do it. “I meet a lot of nice people every day now who seem to remember that they saw me somewhere,” he says. “They can’t remember exactly when it was or where it was. But they expect me to remember them, and I don’t remember them. But I say, ‘Oh, you were sitting in the front row, three seats over from the left!’ And it’s bullshit.

“Bullshit is essential to the entertainment business,” he continues, before immediately heading off on one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness tangents. “I rode four bulls, and I was getting better at it,” he says, recalling his days in the rodeo. “I was losing a little bit of my fear; not all of it. But it was a big thrill, and I was getting to be a better bull rider. But I figured, ‘Bull number five is probably going to kill me,’ So I quit while I was winning.”

Nearly 80 years after pivoting to music, American treasure Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is still winning.