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By Tom Murphy
A household name among hard-core folkies, Ramblin' Jack Elliott provides the musical conduit between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in 1931 to a Jewish physician in Brooklyn, the unlikely saddle tramp reinvented himself as a rodeo rider and cowboy singer -- one whose worldly exploits have influenced every major American troubadour from Tom Waits to Bruce Springsteen to Beck. He's rounded up cattle, built ships, driven semis and even once wobbled around on crutches for a Mexican healer before pretending to be "cured." ("Made me twenty-five dollars!" Elliott beams.) In a typically tangent-prone conversation, Ramblin' Jack lives up to his nickname -- and then some.
Westword: You learned to play guitar from a rodeo clown named Brahmer Rogers?
Elliott: No, but he was my first inspiration. That was back when I was fifteen. I ran away from home and joined a traveling rodeo owned by Colonel Jim Eskew. I was groomin' horses. I was only on that show for about three months. Almost starved to death.
You first met Woody Guthrie in a hospital in Coney Island, right? After his emergency appendectomy?
That's right. He was pretty sick. He said, "Go across the street. You can meet my kids." So I introduced myself to his wife, and she showed me around their apartment. I ended up living there for about a year and a half.
When Woody recovered, you both went to Will Geer's hideout in California. I guess a lot of suspected communists were waiting out McCarthy's witch hunt there.
Yeah, Will Geer. He was Grandpa Walton on TV. Will had a theater out there in Topanga Canyon. It had a beautiful oak tree growing right out of the stage.
Is that where you met James Dean?
No, I met him in Hollywood. He was in his little white Porsche Spyder -- the first Porsche ever seen in the United States -- and he had a matching girlfriend, with white hair and a white fur coat. I serenaded 'em for an hour in the parking lot at Googies restaurant, on Sunset. And the girl that introduced me to James Dean -- his ex-girlfriend, June Shelley -- she became my bride, and we went to Europe together to sing our way around the world. We were married and lived happily ever after on a motor scooter for about five years. She went on to become the Rolling Stones' road manager.
When you got back to Greenwich Village, you were more or less regarded as Woody Guthrie's heir apparent.
Some people said that I thought I was Woody Guthrie, because I was very obviously imitating him. Woody didn't seem to mind. It would have been a lot easier if he could have showed me what I was tryin' to learn. So I eventually learned how to steal different guitar licks and things.
Guthrie admittedly stole from Leadbelly. Didn't he tell you, "If you want to learn something, just steal it"?
That's right. Same deal. He said, "Leadbelly said I could steal it." Musicians are all a bunch of very artful thieves.
Guthrie even told you, "Jack, you sound more like me than I do."
He liked my guitar-pickin'. See, Woody's father was a cowboy, and that probably gave him a lot of that style and spirit that he had. I was still much more interested in the cowboy thing than the politics of Woody Guthrie. I do sing some of his protest songs about miners gettin' murdered. It's important to know about that stuff.
Do you consider yourself more an interpreter of songs than a songwriter?
Yeah. I'm not a songwriter. I've only written about four songs in about forty years. "912 Greens" -- I like that. And the one about the tired trucker that was recorded by Johnny Cash, "A Cup of Coffee."
Tell me about the day you first met Bob Dylan in Guthrie's hospital room in New Jersey.
It's not a very nice place to visit, that Greystone Park asylum [where Guthrie had been hospitalized for a nervous disorder]. I just got back from Europe and went to visit Woody. Bob happened to be there. I didn't know about him at all. He took me over to meet Bob and Sid Gleason. They used to take Woody home to their house every Sunday and feed him a nice meal, country cookin'. And sometimes Pete Seeger would be there. Peter La Farge. Dave Van Ronk. We'd play songs to Woody, and he enjoyed that. But me and Bob spent a lot of time together after that. I took a room at the Earl Hotel in the Village, and Bob took a room about five doors down the hall.
In those days, Dylan took a lot of criticism for imitating you, didn't he?
Yeah, he did. But I didn't think he was imitating me. I thought he was just imitating Woody Guthrie. I defended him.
Didn't he bill himself as the "Son of Jack Elliott" at his first official gig?
I think the owner of the club did that: Gerde's Folk City. I don't think Bob would've thought of that. He's a very competitive sort of kid.