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Ramblin' Jack Elliot: Tales From His Long and Winding Career

Urban cowboy talks Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and his own legacy

June 23, 2009 7:40 AM ET

Over a half century ago, Ramblin' Jack Elliott became Woody Guthrie's sidekick and leading interpreter, and later a hero to Bob Dylan and the early '60s folk scene. At 77, Elliott (born Elliot Adnopoz in Brooklyn) still lives up to his nickname. Ask the San Francisco-based urban cowboy a simple question — for instance, how Joe Henry came to produce Elliott's new album of Depression-era blues, A Stranger Here — and he'll embark on the first of many detours through his long and storied career. "I've known him for close to my whole life, and I've never heard the same story twice," marvels Arlo Guthrie. "It wasn't until I was older when I realized that 'ramblin' was not a geographical name." A few of Elliott's fascinating rambles:

On first meeting Dylan:
"I met Bob when Woody was in the hospital. He was this funny little kid. He told me he had all my recordings. He rattled off the names of all the songs I did on those albums. I didn't remember them myself. He was kinda weird, and a lot of people were making noises about what a terrible voice he had. He did have kind of a screechy voice. But he was like a son to me. For his first gig at Gerde's Folk City. I took him down to the Musicians Union because you had to be in the union to work that gig. I was a member myself, and I vouched for him. Said he was a very good guitar player."

On his memorable version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right":
"For three days I was locked in a cabin in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania after my second wife had run off with another man, who was later Bob's road manager. I was about to play a gig but it snowed so hard that we couldn't get down the hill to get out of the house. So we were locked in this cabin with firewood and a bottle of whiskey and a Bob Dylan record. I listened to that record all day and night for three days. On the third day the snow melted and I got the door open and jumped in my truck and drove to New York City and went to the Gaslight where everyone hung out. It was a Monday open mic night. I sang about one verse of 'Don't Think Twice' and someone stood up in the audience. I squinted into the darkness and recognized Bob and he waved his arm at me and said [in perfect Dylan imitation], 'I relinquish it to you, Jack!' I said, 'Wow' and went on playing. I'd never had anything relinquished to me before."

On jamming as a kid with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
"I used to play with them when I was living in Brooklyn with Woody. Sonny used to tell me that my mother would call him up looking for me: 'Have you seen my boy?' He liked to rag me on that. It was about 15 and it kinda made my fur crawl. It kinda was embarrassing."

On accompanying Nico in Greenwich Village, mid-'60s:
"I really admired her. She was very beautiful. She had a very strange way of singing. It was kind of monotone but she put it over. I played that one weekend and got paid $75 with a check signed by Andy Warhol. I could've sold that check for $75,000, but I cashed it because I needed money. I don't know where that check is now. Probably some banker has it on a wall somewhere."

On the cover of his just-reissued 1970 album Young Brigham:
"I was living in a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and Brigham was the name of my horse. The man who sold me that horse said, 'You know, Jack, if you put your horse on your album cover, the hay will be tax deductible!' I went, 'I gotta remember that.' I took a picture of me on the horse and put it on the record album and named it after him. But I don't think I ever bothered to do that tax deduction."

On being part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue (1975):
"It was like a bunch of kids who'd run away with the circus. We were coddled and protected and it was kind of fun, like being a kid again. We probably had too much to drink and it seemed like we were having a lot of rollicking fun the whole way. One time I shared a back room on a bus with my daughter and Joni Mitchell for four hours. We saw a fire out the window. Joni was writing a song called 'Coyote' and she put that in the song, 'We saw a farmhouse burning down in the middle of the road.' I still don't know who Coyote is."

On helping induct Woody Guthrie into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1988):
"I was sitting there with a dirty beat-up old Stetson and a lumberjack shirt I had on the airplane. I was late and couldn't change clothing, so we went straight to the building. Had some cold coffee and some cake. Later we were all jamming onstage. That piano player from England, Elton John, stood up and turned around and shook hands with me. I guess he was a fan of mine. We didn't have a chance to talk; he had to sit right back down and continue playing. It was in the middle of a song."

On seeing Dylan recently:
"He played here a few years ago at a lake up north, and he said, 'What's in your life, Ramblin'?' I said, 'I got a new Ford truck, I drove from Oklahoma, took me four days, fed the cats, got a little sleep.' He starts giggling: 'Fed the cats. Fed them cats.' He was giggling. That's all he said. I'm still waiting for a Dylanographer to explain to me what he meant."

On his legacy — reinventing yourself:
"I was going to visit to Willie Nelson in San Francisco. One obviously gay young man recognized me on the street and he said, 'Ramblin' Jack! You know, you're a hero — you've done a lot for the movement.' I said, 'What movement?' He said, 'Gay liberation.' 'What did I do for you?' He said, 'Just being yourself.' I pretended to be angry and yelled, 'This ain't no Brokeback Mountain!' And they laughed like hell, because they knew where I was comin' from. I'm a friendly kind of guy."

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