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Ramblin' Jack Elliott stands alone

By Brian T. Atkinson, July 2006

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Flea embellishes the tale ever so slightly with an acoustic guitar line that stays respectfully in the shadows of the story. "Bess was the one who gave Woody and me a ride in her car to go to Woody's place the last time I saw him," Elliott speaks over the guitar part. "When he went up to sleep in his tent, Woody and I collected some money ...11 dollars and 44 cents. We changed it into paper money at the uh San Remo Bar."

"We collected that money in a paper beer cup. When we got to California, there was only about 50 or 60 cents left. We made it last all the way across the entire United States - four days across the country. I guess that's an average expenditure of three dollars a day to drive across the country in a Buick."

His voice beams with pleasure while recounting the events. No wonder. At only a minute and a half, the "song" is short, but it carries great impact, especially considering Elliott's close relationship with America's best-known folk singer. Elliott, of course, met his idol Guthrie some years after running away from his Jewish family home as a teenager.

"It was a strange moment in time when my dad was losing it, and I think he knew he was losing his life," Nora Guthrie says in "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," the 2000 documentary made by Elliott's daughter. "I think he was grateful to have a protegé right there...Here was this young guy saying, 'How do you do this, How do you do that? I think my dad was happy to hand over everything he knew and everything about himself that he could pass on."

Nora Guthrie explains in the film that Elliott picked up most of what he learned about music from Woody. "(Jack) lived with us for about a year," she says. "He tells this funny story. He says that he'd ask Woody, 'How did you do that?' And Woody would say, 'Damned if I'm gonna tell ya. If you want it, steal it. I'm not gonna just give it away.' And then my dad would say, 'Hell, do you think Leadbelly taught me anything? Leadbelly said you can steal whatever you like, but I'm not giving it away.'"

Elliott took what he learned from Guthrie and built his own career as a singer out of it. But as much as he admired the Dust Bowl balladeer, he never aspired to be the songwriter that Guthrie was. It was the singing and traveling part that fascinated him. In fact, Elliott estimates that he's written only a half-dozen songs at best over the past four decades. He attributes that to a "tremendous lack of discipline" and the fact that he's too preoccupied with moving on to the next town to sit down and write songs.

But as an interpreter, few are as sublimely unique as Elliott. He's an adept, effortless storyteller who makes any song he sings his own. Consider "Hong Kong Blues," the sixth track on "I Stand Alone." Listen as Elliott sings, "This is a story of a very unfortunate colored man/Who got arrested in old Hong Kong/He got 20 years' privilege taken away from him/When he kicked old Buddha's gong." The song is as much Elliott's as it is Hoagy Carmichael's, the man who wrote the original in the 1940s.

Elliott attributes his life experiences with providing the mettle to transform any song into his own. "I think to be a good song interpreter, you have to have lived enough to understand where the person who wrote the song is coming from," he says. "You have to understand the material." He singles out Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash as others whose interpretations he considers first-rate.

Probably the finest moment on "I Stand Alone," "Arthritis Blues," proves the point that personal experience elevates his performing standard. He has both known the song's writer and has experienced the malady. "'Arthritis Blues' was written by a man named Butch Hawes, who I met one time when Woody took me out to Topanga Canyon," he says. "He'd developed arthritis and wrote that song." Elliott himself has had a hip replaced, and arthritis has set in.

It hasn't stopped his rambling. Probably nothing will. But nowadays, Elliott appreciates his down time as much as his time on the road. When he's home in California, Elliot cuts himself off from the outside world as much as he can. He even silences the stereo. "When I get home, I don't want to do much of anything, so I don't listen to much music today," he says. "I'm out on the road and playing gigs so much that I don't have the time to listen to music."

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