“We come with the dust and we go with the wind” is one of the most haunting lines in the folk canon. It was penned by Woody Guthrie when he hitched a ride on the melody of Pretty Polly to compose Pastures of Plenty, his tribute to migrant workers. It’s most appropriate that the line mirrors the quintessence of Ramblin Jack Elliott on whom, since their first meeting in the late 1940s, Woody Guthrie has been a profound and diverse influence. “Jack sounds more like me than I do,” Guthrie once quipped and each man from square one was famously made of wanderlust.
Ramblin Jack Elliot is an elusive constancy who comes and goes according to the dictates of some calling that only he knows, a calling that roots him in the essential magic of each life he encounters. If he finds no magic, he creates it, for he is the story teller who embodies the story he tells and remakes it anew. In turn, we become part of the story he tells and that is how it should be. He is the unbreakable thread in the fabric of folk culture he embodies, an everyday guy who seems to find new substance in life to quietly enchant him every day. He belongs everywhere and nowhere specific that might hold him down. We belong everywhere with him as he tells his tale. And then he is gone.
I first met Ramblin Jack around 1961 at a club, one with a pretence of sophistication, in Hamilton. “The guy has manure on his boots,” said the owner disparagingly, trying to summarize an entertainer with a cowboy hat who didn’t subscribe to a slick and shallow image of what folksingers were taken to be at the time. But does anybody really care to remember The Limelighters or The Brothers Four? “We met fifty years ago,” I told Jack last year at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, but you didn’t have time to talk much because you were waiting “for your woman from Toronto.” “When was that?” asked Jack. “1961 or so” He reflected for a minute and answered with an undercurrent of surprise in his voice, “You know, I married her,” as if that union was a lifetime of wandering ago, and it was.
I’ve tried to interview Jack a couple of times since the sixties and on each occasion he has talked about everything but my questions. His words like the man tend to wander away when any imposition is sensed. They don’t like to be corralled and confined, but instead like to take off and riff until they are spent. Part of it might be a need for self preservation in Ramblin Jack, who knows? Every man is a paradox, after all, and doesn’t owe his accessibility to the world. In return, from Ramblin Jack we get a priceless and unforced stream of consciousness full of surprising connections that are profoundly delightful. Jack didn’t answer my questions, to be sure, but I did learn about Rick Danko, tying knots, Rod Stewart, and especially Jack’s beloved dog.
Ramblin Jack was back to Hugh’s Room last Saturday, a genuine legend with a National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton and two Grammy statues back home and a flat pick in his pocket here in Toronto. Hugh’s is a perfect venue for warm human connection and you find that conversation oozes around the room with ease. It’s a good place for Ramblin Jack, who is now eighty and as always likes to meet people. He hangs out in the audience before and after his set and meets many who want to make affectionate connection with him. At one point he drops an imitation of Bob Dylan, who many say copied Ramblin Jack down to the last detail in the early days, into the conversation and then smiles with enjoyment. The raconteur takes delight in himself –and he should, because he is funny and without guile.
A ten song set that takes an hour begins with Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues, moves on to The Cuckoo -with its haunting descending scale in a minor chord and learned from buddy Derroll Adams who learned it from Bascom Lunsford on Folkways- and slides into the Carter Family’s Engine 143. “I was nineteen and Woody was thirty-nine when I hung around with him,” reminisces Jack and then, to explain how he ended up on a weeklong trip by car to California without a change in clothing, declares “My motto is to never say no.” Then he backtracks, telling us “I ran away from home when I was fifteen to join the rodeo……I made only two dollars a day…….so I ended up eating my horses’ oats.” And then forward in time again to Guthrie’s Talking Columbia, with the explanation that Jack’s mentor wrote twenty-six commissioned songs in thirty days for the Department of the Interior.
Ramblin Jack’s unique flat picking style, one which I’ve long considered a musical wonder, remains beyond the emulation of mere mortals. It has a conversational feel to it with distinct punctuating bass notes that stand assertive and immaculate in their placement. Meanwhile, a subtle brushing of one or several treble strings has each note or partial chord sounding like a remote echo to the bass note runs that drive each song’s momentum. Jack’s magical touch produces sounds of crisp delicacy and clarity while the seemingly perfect balance between bass and treble notes is one I’ve heard nowhere else. Part of the secret is the way Jack holds the pick with the tips of his thumb and index finger, I’ve come to believe, but who can account for the incredible lightness of being in his sound?
Next comes the Stones’ Connection whose chords Jack once realized are not too far off Jesse Fuller’s in San Francisco Bay Blues. He does Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right in a wistful and personal manner whose mood he demolishes in the last verse with an exaggerated and slurred emphasis on a few words. Then “another Woody song” in Ranger’s Command, then Bedbug Blues from “was it Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey?” We also have, along the way, a tasteful but evocative accompaniment from Stan, a veteran guitarist from Yorkville years, who has climbed on board for the second half of the set. He shines in Jack’s Arthritis Blues by Butch Hawes which enumerates many aches and pains in an ironically pulsating tempo. Who ever heard pain sound like so much fun?
There are asides and anecdotes throughout about the authorship of Diamond Joe, about Jack getting a shot at flying a plane with Jerry Jeff Walker sitting behind him, and about Winston Young, who I saw at the second Mariposa Folk Festival, allowing Jack to operate his crane and move a girder to the 40th floor. A requested I Threw It All Away gets a caressing intro and then, because Jack hasn’t “done it for years” it goes unsung. Jack leaves the stage, strums his way through the audience, and then sits down for the many conversations that are to come before he heads off to his next gig in Virginia, a man unowned yet open to the hearts of all.