American folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott has amassed a wealth of stories that blur the line between reality and fantasy. © Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times
The singer and professional flatpicker player was one of the last folk revivalists of the '50s still on the road.
He studied with Woody Guthrie, inspired Bob Dylan, and hung out with Jack Kerouac. Alan Lomax recorded for him and performed with Phil Ochs, Nico and Prine.
TOMALEES, Calif. — At a friend's house in a small village about an hour north of San Francisco, Ramblin' Jack Elliott is trying to decide what to eat for breakfast. But he couldn't help but tell a story.
"The best oatmeal I've ever had was in the Los Angeles County jail," the singer said under an old felt cowboy hat with a blue handkerchief around his neck. In 1955, while living in Topanga Canyon, he was stopped on the Pacific Coast Highway due to a broken taillight in his Ford Model A. "They told me I could pay a $25 fine or stay in a cell for 6 days."
He was interested in religion and thought he would finally have a chance to read the Bible, but his cellmates were too noisy. "I was very bored and the police needed space for more real criminals, so they kicked me out the next day," he said. "They even gave me a bus fare home."
Over his decades as a wandering folk singer, Eliot, who turns 91 in August, has amassed a plethora of such stories that blur the line between reality and fantasy and are transformed into a special, increasingly endangered form of American folklore. He has released nearly two dozen albums alone or with banjo player Derroll Adams (who died in 2000) since 1956, but did not win a Grammy until 1995.
Known as an interpreter rather than a writer, he sang popular versions of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" and traditional "South Coast." Although he hasn't released a new album since 2009's A Stranger Here, he continues to perform live. His performances this fall include a performance on September 24 at the Lyman Auditorium in Nashville; and short concerts in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, followed by a tribute to John Prine and ending the show in California.
This is a welcome return. Elliot gave 44 concerts in 2019 before the pandemic forced him to take a 15-month pause, the longest he has ever been away from stage. In August, he rescheduled two shows after contracting coronavirus, although he called his condition "mild" after taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid.
Elliot Charles Adnopoz (Elliot Adnopoz, born into a middle-class family in Brooklyn and descended from Jewish immigrants in Lithuania), was fascinated by our country's icons—like rodeos, merchant ships, Boxcar-Hopping Folkies, Peterbilt trucks—that he transformed himself into a wandering cowboy. Nautical enthusiast and a wind-chasing bard.
Today, he is one of the last folk revivalists of the 50s. He studied with Woody Guthrie, inspired Bob Dylan, and hung out with Jack Kerouac. Alan Lomax recorded for him and performed with Phil Ochs, Nico and Prine. He covered songs of American folk icons, met them and worked together for so long that he had become one of them.
"He wore the cloak and scepter of an American bard; He's that guy," said Bob Weir, a founding member of Grateful Dead and an old friend of Eliot's. The two met in the '60s when Eliot was giving an opening show for Lightnin' Hopkins at a Berkeley club, when 16-year-old Will burst into the locker room through a skylight to avoid being tapped. "He brought me into a conversation that we've been having; He almost pinned me to the wall," he said. "I became acutely aware of who he was and why they called him Ramblin' Jack."
▲ After decades of touring, the 90-year-old is still tenacious. He walked swaggeringly in carefully chosen outfits. © Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times
As legend goes, Eliot's nickname comes from the mother of folk singer Odetta. "I knocked on the door, the door opened a crack, and I heard her say, 'Odeta, Ramblin' Jack is coming,'" Eliot said. "I immediately decided on that name."
Since then, Elliot has spent most of his time shuttling between the East and West Coasts, with a bit of Texas in between. He eventually settled in a humble rental house in the West Marlin countryside, a fascinating stretch along Coastal Highway One. In these places, Eliot became a kind of mythical figure, widely known for his profession, but better known for his temperament, a kind soul in western costume who cared as much for the local postman as he did for the days of the "Rolling Thunder Revue."
"He doesn't distinguish between Joan Baezes and Bob Dylan, or between people driving buses or trucks," his daughter, Aiyana Elliott, said in an interview in Marshall near California. "He loved working people, but also all who came into contact with him."
In 2000, Ayana produced a documentary about her father, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which explored the real-world costs of building a mythical artistic image and found that Ayana was struggling with Eliot's constant restlessness. In a moment of frustration, she begged to be alone with him, but he never agreed. She revealed that this plot line makes more sense than it seems. "If there's anything that keeps me away from my father," she explains, "it's that he's had an outrageously poor taste for women for decades." ”
At the request of his daughter, Eliot has been recording his story for posterity at the home of his friend Peter Coyote, an actor, writer and counterculture activist of the 60s. "They believed I could keep him normal," Coyote said in an interview at his home. "He came here with a really good sound engineer like Bob Weir, Peter Rowan and all the other musicians he knew."
"His life was so simple that a lot of people didn't realize how simple it was," said Elliot's daughter, Aiyana. "But I've never met anyone who has so many friends like him." © Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times
Will emphasized the importance of documenting Eliot's history: "I'm very much in favor of leaving some space for him at the Smithsonian," he says, "because a large part of America's musical heritage is in this institution." ”
Known for his storytelling and otherworldly stage performances, Eliot's strongest superpower may be the way he plays the guitar. "The way he played it, I've only heard it in him," Will said. Eliot's extraordinary flatpicking guitar was also what Frank Hamilton noticed during the American folk revival, when the two musicians were drawn to Washington Square Park. The former Weavers band member and founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago called Eliot "an excellent folk guitarist" and "a very good storyteller." "He and I, as well as many other young people at the time, were conditioned by an open-path romanticism," he said in a telephone interview.
Although Elliott didn't write many songs, a road trip between him and Hamilton inspired his most famous original song, "912 Greens," inspired by the house of a folk singer they trespassed into in New Orleans. "That's a talking song," Eliot said, meaning he was telling a story on acoustic guitar. "I was honored that Guy Clark told me he stole the guitar part I played for one of his songs." Johnny Cash sang a cover of another dialogue piece, "Cup of Coffee," from his 1966 novelty song album Everybody Loves a Nut.
Recalling his earliest encounter with Dylan, Eliot described him as "a beautiful little kid with peach fluff who can't shave yet." (The future Nobel laureate, then a teenager, visited Guthrie at Greystone Park Mental Hospital in New Jersey.) Eliot wrote "Bleeker Street Blues" for Dylan in 1997 when the singer-songwriter was hospitalized with severe chest pain caused by histoplasmosis, a fungal infection. "We'll join Woody, Jerry, and Townes later, but now we all need you, so keep it up," Elliot said while singing on his acoustic guitar.
▲ Dylan and Eliot, around 1964. © Douglas R. Gilbert via ramblinjackelliott.com
When they became neighbors at the Earle Hotel in Greenwich Village, they forged a deep friendship over a shared love of Guthrie and other emerging folk revival music. Since then, fans have accused Dylan of imitating Eliot's style in the early days, particularly his nasal voice, but that didn't bother the older man. "I helped him join the musicians' union," he said. Today, the pair don't keep in touch very often, but when they do, they are enthusiastic. "Love you, Jack," Elliot said after recalling a performance in Auckland in 2014. "I thought, 'Wow, you've never said that to me before,'" Eliot said.
Unlike Dylan and many of his other peers, Elliot hasn't seen much commercial success — partly because he's working in too niche a musical genre, but also because "he's not very good at managing his career per se," Aiyana says. Because he doesn't write many songs, he earns much less royalties on album sales and streaming. Most of his income comes from touring, which has its own risks. Above all, Eliot sought freedom and human connection. "His life is quite austere, and a lot of people don't realize how simple it is," Ayana said. "But I've never met anyone who has so many friends like him."
After decades of touring, the 90-something man remains alive. He has recovered from three bypass surgeries and two "minor strokes" that left him unable to play guitar for about a week. His hearing is aided by small hearing aids, but his mobility and endurance are more like that of a young man. He swaggered in carefully chosen outfits.
After an oatmeal breakfast with berries and chopped walnuts, and plenty of stories about brigs, James Dean, big trucks, Leon Russell and other themes, Elliot loaded into his Volvo station wagon and meandered through cypress-lined roads overlooking the estuary of the Gulf of Tomales. He passed the lavender fields of his friend Nancy, past the dunes of Dillon Beach where he and his friend Venta were hiking. In a moment of vulnerability, he recalled his wife, Jan, the last of five siblings, who died of alcoholism in 2001. "When she left us, I was devastated," he said.
The couple lived in an RV in Point Reyes in 1995 while working for Ridgetop Music, owned by Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods. One day, they decided to go north to see the scenery. "I was driving and admiring the bay on the left, while she was sitting in the passenger seat and saw a sign on the right," he said. "We parked our car there and rented the house on the spot." He has lived in it ever since.
"A large part of America's musical heritage lives in this body," Bob Will said of Eliot. © Aubrey Trinnaman for The New York Times
During the hour-long drive, Eliot's figure contrasts rolling pastures and stunning ocean views, and he recalls other friends and acquaintances he has known over the years, some of whom have moved away or died. He pointed to a dilapidated farmhouse and wondered what had happened to its owner: "I haven't seen him in years, and I hope he's okay." While Elliot lives in one of the most beautiful places in the United States, it's clear that the view is an added bonus for him. What really nourishes him are the people here.
Later, at Nick's Cove, a local restaurant with a marina that extends to the bay, Elliot chatted with a woman watching a baseball game at the bar. "She runs a large dairy," he explained as he walked over to a table facing the performers of the night. "Hey, I know that guy!" He saw Danny Montana, a cowboy folk singer in a hat and boots. On this September night, he covered many of Eliot's friends, such as John Plain, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Guy Clark, who hummed a song while eating a burger. When he finished the show, Elliot invited Montana to sit at our table and then complimented his "gear" as he packed up his gear and left.
In a few weeks, Elliot's own show will be on the road again. He was particularly excited about his traveling companions, a former naval aviator who also loved horses. "He just bought a brand new red Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck, and he's going to be my driver," he laughs. "He's a good driver and a good guy." (End)
原文：At 91, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Still Wants to Tell You a Story
Written by Erin Osmon
Translated by Lin Xi
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