Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Singing Cowboy from Brooklyn

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'm not sure where we met Jack Elliott, whether at the Gaslight or the Kettle of Fish next door where Phil Ochs presided over a folk salon.  But one night he needed a place to sleep and we offered our couch.  The next day he left before we got up, leaving behind his big Martin guitar. Later he returned on his motorcycle and took me on a odyssey to see the big sailing ships that had gathered in the harbor that season.

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.

We moved to London in the fall.  I wrote about American television programs shown in England for a magazine guide, but I wanted to expand my writing horizons.  Learning that Jack had made it big in England before return to the U.S., I pitched a story about his European experience to Sing Out! Magazine, the Bible of the folk scene.  They bought the idea and I spent the next few months research Jack's footprint in London and on the continent with his friends.  I was pleased when the story came out, and reading it over now 49 years later I think it holds up.

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.

Greenwich Village
The new ramblers, usually some of respectable urban families, glorify the life of "hard traveling" lived by Wood Guthrie.  Moved by Woody's fame, they see the same experiences that Woody suffered and sang about.

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.

"Where we see Jack on the stage now," said Pete Seeger, "he is Jack and no longer an imitation of Woody.  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
Eric Von Schmidt was perceptive enough to see Jack's personal development in 1955 six years before it was recognized by the American public.  "The word had gone around for some time that he had actually become Woody," Eric said.  But when he heard Jack sing Blind Lemo Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan," -- "it was magnificent, perfect, and Jack Elliott.  I felt somewhere Oakie had met Negro and he was the fruit of the coupling.  Jesse Fuller had something to do with it, and God knows what all else, but the Guthrie imitator was dead and Jack was born."

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.

Woody Guthrie
Jack was twenty, living by his wits in Greenwich Village, and Woody, at thirty-nine, was near the end of his working life, when they met in 1951.  The glamour and drama of Woody's experiences, compared with his own common upbringing, immediately appealed to Jack. Explained a friend: "Jack wanted to get the hell away from his folks, especially from the fact that his old man was an eminent physician instead of a horny-handed hell-raising Oakie." Said Jack's younger brother David, now a story editor Columbia Pictures in London: "He's self-destructive.  If you want to compare him to anybody, try T.E. Lawrence.

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
Said Jack: "Every morning, I used to get up and play guitar with Woody for several hours.  I learned how to back up a fiddle with guitar.  Woody was a great fiddle-player.  That's still my favorite way of playing.

"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 with London friends
They traveled to California and settled in "Pretty Polly Canyon," Woody's name for an area of Topanga Canyon, north of Los Angeles.  Among their neighbors were Bess and Butch Hawes, Will Geer, Guy Caraway, Frank Hamilton, and Derroll Adams, the banjo-player from Portland who was to take Woody's place as Jack's best friend and mentor.  On a trip to the South with Carawan and Hamilton, Jack met and sang with Bascom Lamar Lunsford and A.P. and Maybelle Carter.  In San Francisco, he leared from Jesse Fuller and stayed with Sam Charters.  among his drinking and traveling buddies were actor James Dean and poet Gregory Corso.

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.

Bill Leader, who supervised Jack's three albums and three singles for Topic Records, said, "Guthrie was Jack's introduction here, but it was his own personality that started the legend of Ramblin' Jack Elliott.  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
Jack and June appeared in Alan Lomax's folk pantomime, In the Big Rock Candy Mountain; sailed on a yacht to Spain; toured Germany and Denmark with a skiffle group; and sent for Derroll.  Jack and Derroll played the posh Blue Angel club in London for three months; spent the summer singing in Portofino; recorded phonograph records in Milan; then went their separate ways.  After touring Greece on a scooter and Italy with the Platters, Jack and June met Derroll in Brussels to entertain at the World's Fair; Jack sang on TV in Scandinavia; and he and June returned to England where Jack sang at a party for Princess Margaret.

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.

Alex Campbell
The returning hero, Jack was welcomed back everywhere.  He toured Europe, went to Israel with June, and returned to Paris.  In Campbell's songbook, Frae Glesga Toon, he said: "When Jack came back to Paris, I was working in a gypsy bar as an accompanist.  Jack, who was at a club near St. Germain des Pres, finished earlier than I did, and he would often pop around to sing us a few songs.  The yodel part on 'Muleskinner Blues' was always worth at least six glasses of wine from the customers, and, of course, the gypsy singers loved him as well."

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
"He made a strenuous and difficult effort," said Alan Lomax, "to learn to sing and play within the complex stylistic limits of modern Western American folk song style, as set forth by Woody Guthrie.  He was perceptive enough to realize that he had to work long and hard in order to catch the subtleties of the singers in this tradition.  He is now a mastter of this style and can use it freely in singing all of his songs."

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
Next to his music, Jack loves square-rigged sailing ships.  Last summer's "Operation Sail" in New York, when two dozen square-riggers gathered in the harbor, was a momentous even for him.  He rode his motorcycle from mooring to mooring, sang for the crews, brought them as his guests to the Gaslight, and sailed aboard on ship from Providsence to Boston and would have gone all the way to Norway if they had let him.

"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."

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