In 1963, my first wife and I uprooted our lives from Berkeley and moved to New York City where we found a cozy garret apartment at the corner of Christopher and Gay streets in Greenwich Village. We situated ourselves on the fringes of the folk music scene portrayed more gloomy than it was in the Coen brothers film, "Inside Llewyn Davis."
In the evenings after boring day jobs, we went to hear performances at Gerde's Folk City or to the Bitter End where I saw Woody Allen open for the Terriers. And on Sundays we paraded around the fountain in Washington Square Park where the amateur folkies gather to display their talents.
|bar next door to the Gaslight|
I last saw Jack backstage at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. I'd been working for a radio-TV trade publication and wrote a series of articles about folk music on TV, the hootenanny craze and the banning of Pete Seeger for his political views. It got me press passes and a front row seat for the headliners, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, along with Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was the year before Dylan caused a scandal by bringing an electric guitar.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott, by Bill Yaryan, Sing Out!, Nov. 1965, pps 25-28
Walk down any railroad track these days and you may well find a rambling folksinger bound for some unknown glory. Unlike the earlier rambler who traveled by necessity in search of work and food, this wanderer is searching by choice for hunger.
The new rambler is usually an imitation, and an inadequate one at that. He cries hunger with a full stomach, pleads poor with money in the bank. If he becomes an entertainer, and this is usually his motivation, his aimless wandering leads to hypocrisy and exhibitionalism.
There is only one Woody Guthrie, a solitary genius, and the new ramblers would do well to follow the example of the one folksinger0rambler who, because of and in spire of his outright Guthrie imitation, manages to create his own identity. A carbon copy of the fabled Oakie did not appear, because the man was sensitive to Woody's real message. The man's name is Jack Elliott.
He's proven that it's possible to learn an idiom and a style one was not born in, but came to love later in life, and he's proven also that you can emerge from this period of imitation into being genuinely creative on your own, something that needs proving in this modern world where there's so much confusion among young people as to the value of imitating between the value of just being yourself."
Alan Lomax believes Jack "has become one of the few young urban singers who can realistically claim to be a folksinger in the sense that he belongs to a clear-cut and well-defined tradition which he handles in the manner of a true folk artist."
|Eric Von Schmidt|
Only recently would Jack admit he no longer need hide himself under a black Stetson. The Stetson would stay -- it was now a part of him -- but the necessity for costumed escape was over. "Jack Elliott started he in the States," he told an English interviewer. "People over there are so cynical. They'd just laugh their heads off at the idea of a kid from Brooklyn singing cowboy songs. So I invented this Oklahoma thing to keep 'em quiet. Said I was born on a ranch."
Although confessing his origins, Jack still could not believe he was no longer an imitation. "He remains unconvinced of his wonderful validity," said a worried friend, and unconvinced that Jack Elliott -- part mimic, part memory -- is an original blend.
Jack was born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn in 1931. As a boy, he lived in a Western fantasy, going to Buck Jones and Wild Bill Elliott movies, playing like Gene Autry on the guitar, reading books by Will James, and drawing pictures of cowboys and horses. GHe persuaded his friends to call him "Buck Elliott." When he was sixteen, he ran away with Colonel Jim Eskew's rodeo. Dr. Abraham Adnopoz located him two months later, but parental discipline was no longer any use. Mrs. Adnopoz said she wanted her son "to become a great humanitarian like his father. But instead of ministering to people' bodies, he found it more congenial to commune with their souls."
After two abortive attempts at an academic education, at the University of Connecticut and at Adelphia College, Jack left school. Von Schmidt remembers hearing "of a curly-headed Greek called Xerxes who played one hell of a guitar." Finally meeting Jack, "or Zerk as he was called," Eric found him "very cowboy-oriented. He played whanging his thumb up and down on as many strings as possible."
In the courser of his Village meanderings, Jack heard a record by Woody Guthrie. Son they met and Jack was asked to come stay with Woody and Margie and their three children in their house in Brighton Beach.
|Jack and Woody|
"At first, I was completely imitating Woody, although there were some things he tried to teach me that I never could get the hang of. I was so under his spell that I couldn't think of any other way to play or sing. I never started in to do it. It's something that just happened."
The willing apprentice absorbed Woody's instrumental and singing style, and the influences which molded it. On his own, he imited Woody's manner, his speech, and his personality. Woody finally said: "Jack sounds more like me than I do."
Jack's first professional job was at Knott's Berry Farm, a Southern California Western playground that absorbs the tourist overflow from nearby Disneyland. Ed Pearl, owner of the Ash Grove, said "Jack was acting as Judge Roy Bean. He would marry people for a dollar and also play guitar in the amphitheater formed y a semi-circle of covered wagons in front of a huge bonfire." Later, Jack worked for a faith-healing church as a cripple on crutches. "He would wobble up the aisle," said Derroll "and be saved." Throwing away his crutches, Jack would miraculously walk out, with a few dollars of collection plate cash in his pocket.
June Hammerstein, the young actress Jack met and married two months later, started him on his European rambles, although he didn't particularly want to leave Topanga Canyon. "I had been planning to go anyway," said June, "so why not the two of us, with his guitar to keep us in bread and wine?"
Woody provided a family tree for Jack Elliott and Jack inherited Woody's songbag. England listened, and the people's praise gave Jack increasing confidence in his created character. The British crazy in 1955 was skiffle, described as "folk music with a beat," and everyone, familiar with Guthrie's songs, welcomed Jack as his official ambassador.
People loved him, and anything he did. If he walked on stage and said, 'It's raining outside,' they would laugh. If he added that he 'got wet,' they would roll in the aisles."
"Jack was the biggest influence on guiotar in this country," said Scottish singer Alex Campbell. His flat-picking seduced skiffle musicians away from their three-chod, brush-the-strings technique. And his traditional folk music, unheard before, was a "bridge from skiffle to real folk music," said Roy Guest.
A hero in England with the stature of Seeger in America, Jack sang at clubs there and on the continent. "he is one of the few to bring tears to my eyes," said Ewan MacColl. His listeners loved Woody's "Massacre" songs, "1913" and "Ludlow," and "Pretty Boy Floyd," and the immediately learned and spread "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Muleskinner Blues" around the country.
|Jack and Derroll in Europe|
With enough rambles in England and Europe behind them to fulfill ten lifetimes, they returned to California in 1958, to "grow roots," Jack said. But the soil was barren. After adulation in England, he received nothing but criticism in his own country, despite the fact that his legend had preceded him across the Atlantic.
Banjo-player Stu Jamieson said, "Jack was aware that he didn't quite sound like Woody, and was concerned about continuing to try, but probably not too displeased to discover a difference. He was upset only by the fact that others knew his goal and condemned him for it."
Jack had begun to drop his imitation of Woody on the continent, said Alex Campbell. "Street singing and entertaining in the clubs there did it. The French wanted variety and Jack wouldn't be just Woody Guthrie."
England invited him back in 1959 and he returned after meeting and singing with Cisco Houston for the first time at Manny Greenhill's house in Boston, to perform in concert with the Weavers and on tour with Pete Seeger.
This was the turning point, according to Jamieson. "Once in England, he was isolated from odious comparisons and could be less introspective. I think Jack's present style grew out of his renewed confidence on returning to England the blues influence." Jck had been trying hard to play the blues, learning from Brownie McGhee in 1952 in New York and, later, from Big Bill Broonzy in London.
After touring England with Jesse Fuller, Jack took a scooter across Europe to Turkery with author Herb Greer, a journey Herb fictionalized in his novel, The trip.
After a year and a half overseas, Jack came home again in 1961. The time was ripe, and his debut at Gerde's Folk City in New York was lauded by Newsweek and The New York Times. His apprenticeship was over. Ever since then, Jack has been himself and no one else.
|Jack, June, Pete|
Jack's interests are a maze of wheels within the major wheel of his music. His friends are legion and each has a fund of stories to tell about the real Jack Elliott, no two tales being alike.
He is an actor: he can impersonate either Barry Fitzgerald or Goldwater at any hour of the day or night. He is an artist: His sailing ships, usually drawn on bar napkins, are meticulously detailed. He is a motorcyclist: a new A.J.S. was recently shipped to him from England. And he is a truck driver: a mechanical fugitive from the telephone company, one of a succession of trucks, was his pride.
All of Jack's pet occupations make food for conersation, and he loves to talk about them, and talk about them, and talk about them.
|Jack and Pete, Newport 2011|
"What he should do," said English singer Rory McEwen, "is get a sailing lugger and take off around the world for the rest of his life, like Captain Slocum, stopping here he feels like it for as long as he wants. One of these days, he'll disappear and that's what will have happened."