Saturday, May 14, 2011
Somebody had to teach Bobby and Arlo Woody's style.
There's a transitionary figure between the old guard and the new guard. There's a flatpicker who helped bridge the era of the troubador to the era of the singer/songwriter recording artist. There's a man who toured the road with both Woody and Bob. And tonight, the gleam from his shiny guitar that reflected across the packed house illuminated some and enlightened others.
There are few men alive who can claim the broad influence on American music as Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Touted by ol' pal Bob Dylan as the "King of the Folk Singers," his six decade-long career has spanned the generations connecting the past to the present in a rolling continuum that expands to this day.
No other man alive can claim to be the conduit by which some of the most prolific musical storytellers of our time made connections. Pete Seeger may argue that point, but Ol' Pete himself says he was influenced by Ramblin' Jack.
Jack's life was never the same since seeing a rodeo at Madison Square Garden at age 9. Albeit, he wasn't "Jack" just yet. He was still Brooklyn raised Elliot Adnopoz at that point. By age 15, decided to run away with the rodeo and experience it on his own. A part-time string musician and full-time rodeo clown taught "Buck" guitar. After being persuaded to come back home 3 months later by his parents, Elliot finished high school and made a couple of false starts at college before the rodeo called him again. This time, the 18 year old "Pancho" would find work as a horse and stable man. He continued to work on his picking and singing and had expanded his repertoire of cowboy songs well enough to entertain crowds. After meeting the legendary troubadour Woody Guthrie in 1950, Jack Elliott left the rodeo to travel and learn at the feet of the master. After about a year living and barnstorming with Woody, he took a ship to Europe where he eventually toured and recorded albums with banjo picker Derroll Adams.
The spawning Folk and Blues revival lured Ramblin' Jack back to NYC in November of 1961. He was first booked at Gerdes in April of 1963. By then, he had become friends with every picker in the Village. They themselves, had known of Ramblin' Jack from his three albums and his, already, legendary past. Others, like Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, knew Jack from their days on the road. They were in New York making a living, too.
One of his new younger friends, of course, was the man-child Bob Dylan. He met Bob at the hospital where Woody was living out his final years. It was the desire to meet Woody that brought Dylan east but due to Woody's condition, they would never get the chance to play together. Bob did all of the pickin' during their visits as Woody was unable to show the eager Bob some of his guitar licks himslef.
But Ramblin' Jack could. And did. He tought them to Uncle Bobby and he tought them to Woody's own son, Arlo, as well. Jack even lived with the Guthrie family again for a spell after his return from England. By the time he sat and picked with Bob Dylan and Arlo, his time spent on the road with Woody, Cisco Houston and Pete Seeger was already a decade gone.
Jack would later become a great influence and/or friends with the likes of everyone from Joan Baez to Dolly Parton. From Phil Ochs to Flea. From Dave Van Ronk to Beck. The degrees of separation from Ramblin' Jack Elliott to the Folk-Blues-Country-Traditional musicians of the present moment is nothing short of astounding.
There may not be a more valuable performer alive today able to lay claim to having first hand memories of seeing how the folk process works. Fans of the genre can readily HEAR how songs from the past got reinterpreted for a new crowd, but Jack SAW it take place before his eyes as he practically oversaw the passing of the torch from the Folk legends of the past to the Folk legends of the future.
Today, fifty-five years since he first ran away to follow his calling, Ramblin' Jack Elliott still has the light of a million memories in his eyes.