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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Featured Stories

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: An Icon in American Music

by JT MoringJune 2024

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott comes to the Belly Up on

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is a vividly colorful character, one of the most experienced performers on this planet, and an iconic element of American musical history.

I avoid giving advice, but here’s some: Go see him when he comes to town on June 30.

I got to talk with Jack recently (mostly listen, actually), and my life is richer for hearing his stories, insights, and word sculptures. Jack was musically and, possibly personally, closest to Woody Guthrie, arguably the most influential individual in American music and has carried Woody’s songs and spirit through the decades. Experiencing that is a rare opportunity.

Jack is definitely his own man, still going strong seven decades after his first album. He hung with the Beats in the ’50s, with Dylan in the ’60s, and with a Who’s Who list of characters since. I won’t rehash Jack’s life; you can read his website bio, his Wikipedia page, or this nice article in the 2016 Troubadour, when he was last in town. What I will do is share some conversations I had with some of our local friends, plus Jack’s daughter and Jack himself.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott plays a seated show at the classic Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, 7:30 on Sunday, June 30; Cindy Lee Berryhill opens.

Interesting clip from 1965. With Pete Seeger listening in, Ramblin’ Jack sings “Portland Town.”

Cindy Lee Berryhill
Cindy Lee Berryhill is the solo opener for Jack this time around. She has already met him twice—at McCabe’s and at Acoustic Music San Diego (AMSD)—and is inspired by the same folk tradition that gave us Jack, just one generation removed. Way back when, reading Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory (a gift from Mojo Nixon) was a defining moment in her musical journey. It was a direct inspiration for her early songs such as “Damn, Wish I Was a Man,” and also taught her the validity of running your personal experience through a “mythological filter” (excellent phrase!) to create a compelling story or song.

Cindy Lee has done her own share of rambling, currently finishing writing a book describing her time in the early LA punk scene (run through a mythological filter!). Later came her Greyhound search for the heart of America, leading eventually to NYC and the Antifolk movement, which was fed by the spirit of the earlier Greenwich Village folk scene.

“I’m excited and honored to be asked to open a show for the great, still-thriving at 92, true American folksinger and one time friend to Woody Guthrie; a man of wit, words, and strings, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It’s one of those rare performances by a man, I assure you, you’d be bummed to miss. And I will humbly play a few of my own songs to open the night.”

Cindy Lee also has stories. “My late husband, Paul Williams, had a great story to tell of bumping around the back country of Mendocino in a jeep with a commune friend, both of them on acid. And then, out of nowhere, there was Ramblin’ Jack on a horse…” If you want to hear the rest of that story, with or without the mythological filter, make sure to be at the Belly Up at 7:30 for Cindy Lee’s opening act on June 30.

Grant Bentley
I actually talked to him at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1968 (where I also saw Janis Ian tell a photographer he couldn’t take her picture in a seminar because her Mom doesn’t know she smokes). I was a suburban brat trying to get some education and I came up to Jack Elliott after his seminar and asked him if he remembers how he got an obvious stain on the front of his light-colored enormous cowboy hat and he replied “Oh, I don’t know, must have been from some hooker in Reno” and I thought to myself “Was he just trying to shock me?” (I was like 16 years old at the time.) Or was that the kind of answer I should expect to a stupid question like that? But he said it with a laugh so I figured it was the former not the latter.

[JTM. Pro tip: when asked a question whose answer is boring/embarrassing/forgotten, blaming a Reno sex worker is a way to elevate the conversation. See also, Cindy Lee Berryhill’s “mythological filter.”]

Wayne Riker
I saw him at the legendary Old Time Cafe in Leucadia, circa 1985. It was a great performance, two shows, 40-person capacity, owners Bill and Pearl tolerated no talking during each show. Great venue!

[JTM. I can guarantee there will be talking at this show, hopefully all from the stage. But seriously, I’ve found seated-show audiences at the Belly Up to be very courteous.]

Joel Rafael
As you probably know, I’ve played the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma every year since it began in 1998. This year will be my 27th year at the WoodyFest, and I’m proud to have five co-writes with Woody from lyrics given to me for completion by the Woody Guthrie Archives.

Bob Dylan with Ramblin’ Jack, early ’60s.

In the early years of the festival, a lot of folks wanted Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to come, but he wouldn’t because he had told himself years before that he would never go to Okemah because the town had been so mean to Woody. Woody’s little sister Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon was the heart and soul of WoodyFest from the beginning and for many years until her passing. She reached out to Jack and that was the touch that was needed because Jack decided he would come to WoodyFest at her request.

He flew in from Europe and arrived in Okemah on a Saturday afternoon thinking he was playing the next day on Sunday. Turns out to his surprise he was scheduled to play that night. Jack was seriously jet-lagged and decided to take a nap in Arlo Guthrie’s tour bus until showtime, but waking him up was another story.

He needed coffee, which was brewed up for him by a backstage guest with a motor home. Unfortunately there was only a flavored coffee and Jack spit it out saying he could drink that and needed some real coffee. I’m not sure if we ever found any as it was probably 10pm by the time Jack hit the stage. The sound was problematic and Jack said he could just play into a mic. The sound guys insisted it would sound better if they troubleshot the problem and used his pick-up, but after a few minutes Jack just yanked the cable out of his guitar and said I don’t need this and played into a mic. He could hardly stay awake and didn’t play well while commenting that he thought he was going to be on the next day and couldn’t find any real coffee.

His set was compromised by the sound and his fatigue, but he was plugged into the hoot on Sunday after a good night’s rest and played a wonderfully memorable set for Woody in the town he said he would never visit.

[JTM. Luckily, our Belly Up show is on a Sunday!]

Marty Katz
Marty is a self-described Dylanoholic, whose encyclopedic knowledge encompasses related figures including Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, whom he has seen twice at AMSD. The first time, he saw “Happy Jack,” who autographed his album at the merch table during intermission. Despite a waiting line, Jack spent several minutes reminiscing about the album recording sessions and cover photographer before applying his signature.

Marty says that Jack comes by his nickname honestly, spending at least as much time telling stories as singing songs on stage. “I was totally awestruck; it was an incredible experience,” says Marty. “I’ve read the books and felt I was listening to Woody as much as I was listening to Jack.” Like Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan and Jerry Jeff (Crosby) Walker, Ramblin’ Jack (Adnopoz) Elliott, reinvented himself as a folk singer. Marty notes, “He grew up in a Jewish household in Brooklyn. I know a Brooklyn accent, and that is not a Brooklyn accent!”

Marty’s second AMSD experience was with “Grouchy Jack.” There was no meet-and-greet at the merch table. Jack was insistent that there be no photography during the performance, even pausing a song when he saw a camera come out in the audience. Nonetheless, Marty remains a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott fan and is considering the feasibility of attending both the Belly Up show and the San Diego Folk Heritage Java Joe Reunion show earlier the same day.

[JTM. The Java Joe show starts at 4pm, should be over by 6 or 6:30, it’s 20 miles from Rancho Bernardo to Solana Beach, where the doors open at 7pm. No problem!]

Richie Strell
It was several years ago when Ramblin’ Jack was just a mere youngster of 89 years old. Our family of three went to his show at the Kuumba Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, California.

I had heard so much about him in the early Bob Dylan days and finally was getting to see him!

He talked for about a half hour between each song. He had both beer and wine on stage with him. After a couple hours of storytelling and an occasional song on his guitar, Jack finally told the management that he needed some whiskey…some “hard stuff”…  if he was going to continue on. One of the managers was able to come back with a bottle of whiskey and placed it on the stage.

At this point, Jack removed his enormous cowboy hat and had a few good swigs. His next couple of songs were a lot more enthusiastic!

As we left the venue, I told my family that I always thought he was called Ramblin’ Jack because he was a traveling troubadour. But now I realized it was because he could talk your ear off with no end of the story in sight. Still, he is the last of that early generation of great folk musicians, and I admire him for his longevity and his talent.

Aiyana Elliott-Partland

Aiyana is Jack’s daughter and sometime producer; she directed the 2000 documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack (available on Amazon and highly recommended) and has been his manager since COVID. “It’s a small miracle,” she says. “He’s in his heyday, keeping me busy, still playing the songs he learned at the feet of Woody Guthrie.”

A recent project she’s proud of is a January 2024 tribute concert for Jack in San Francisco, with proceeds benefitting the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. Bob Weir pulled in a roster of guest performers including Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Nathaniel Rateliff, Joe Henry, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Dave Alvin, Rodney Crowell, Maria Muldaur, Ricki Lee Jones, Peter Rowan, John Oates, Corb Lund, Victoria Williams, Jackie Greene, Andy Hedges, and Mike Beck. Wow!

“It was monumental,” says Aiyana. Highlights included Steve Earle, who took Ramblin’ Jack’s story-song, “912 Greens,” and made it his own, relating the time he and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark met Jack in Nashville. Another was a touching tribute by Dave Alvin, who noted that Jack was not a prolific song writer, but it wasn’t necessary because he “inhabits” the songs. (Wavy Gravy, counter-culture figure extraordinaire, has called Ramblin’ Jack a “method folk singer, the Lee Strasburg of the lone prairie.”)

You can read a review of the show here (courtesy of Detroit Richards) and see concert footage here. After the San Francisco tribute show, Jack told Aiyana, “I didn’t know if anyone was listening!” Yeah, Jack, we’re listening. Sing us some songs!

[JTM. Note to self: Ask my daughter to be my manager. She would be awesome!]

Joel Rafael again
I met Jack Elliott in 1974. I was on a road trip with a friend and we were in Colorado. We were in Aspen in early July and heard that Jack Elliott and John Prine were playing at a local theater. Jack played first and was standing in the lobby of the theater at the break, so I walked up to him to say hello.

A few weeks earlier I had played the Monday late night open stage at the Troubadour in LA and met a young Stetson-hatted songwriter about my age in the dressing room. He had a beautiful D-45 Martin guitar. He told me it had been given to him by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Thinking this would give me an opening for a conversation, I mentioned this to Jack saying, “I guess we have a mutual acquaintance.” 

“Who’s that?” He asked. I told him the songwriter’s name and he gave me a funny look and said, “Oh yeah, tell him I said hello.” I told him I would, knowing I would probably not see the hatted songwriter again.

The next night I was signed up to play an open mic at a saloon in Aspen called Jake’s that was hosted by Jack Hardy. Just as it was almost time for me to play, a group of guys came in the door. It was Jack Elliott, John Prine, Steve Weisberg, and Tony Selvage, three sheets to the wind. They asked Hardy if they could do a couple songs under some assumed funny name for the group.

Hardy put them on just before me.

Needless to say, they blew the roof off of the place and my two songs were no count. When I finished, I sat down in the only seat left in the place, next to John Prine, who immediately apologized to me for messing up my mini-set. We struck up a conversation which resulted in me and my friend following Prine, Selvage, Weisberg, and one other fellow to Weisberg’s house where we jammed until dawn on John Prine songs. Ramblin’ Jack didn’t go with us as he was getting up early the next day to go horseback riding with some friends.

After that meeting I would run into Jack from time to time at various shows and festivals, and he always treated me as a friend.

Many years after that initial meeting, Jack and I were on a show together, in Westwood near UCLA. On a break we went to Jack’s hotel room to hang out and smoke a joint. We started talking about guitars and Jack mentioned that he once had a beautiful D-45 but a young Stetson-hatted songwriter (who will go nameless) was going to do some repairs on it and stole it. That’s when I recalled our very first conversation about a mutual acquaintance that Jack obviously didn’t remember.

I haven’t seen Jack for a few years, but we were on a few shows together in 2012 to celebrate Woody’s 100th Birthday.

That’s my Ramblin’ Jack story.

[JTM. Jack did acknowledge the guitar theft, but said it was too long a story to go into. If you can think of a Stetson-wearing, Martin-playing, early 70s LA-hanging songwriter whose initials are NOT “SS,” please tell me, because I’m having unpleasant thoughts.]

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
It took me a few weeks to track down Ramblin’ Jack for an interview. I had hoped he would add some spice to this article but was ready to go ahead without him because I figured a 92-year-old guy, known for random monologues even in his prime—how much am I going to get from him? A lot, it turns out!

  • I learned that he remembers the Belly Up as a place that holds 400 smiling people. (Unlike a specific Hollywood venue that holds 400 people, “but they’re not smiling.” We were on to another topic before I learned why they don’t smile in Hollywood.)
  • He remembers Country Dick Montana once opening for him, “a force of nature!” (And while we were on the subject of Montana, I learned there are few cowboys there anymore, and none at all in Bozeman. Now you know.)
  • I learned about Casey Tibbs, Jack’s friend and colleague and six-time national saddle bronc riding champion (a big deal!), who died in Ramona in 1990.
  • Jack’s fitness regimen of beach-walking in Marin.
  • He has personal and professional respect for Joe Doe. Oh yeah, from the band X. “X? Cool name!”
  • I learned you should bring a box of Kleenex to the Belly Up. Why, are you going to make them cry? “No, in case I need to blow my nose!” (He “never gets a cold” but had one the day we talked. I wouldn’t have known if he didn’t mention it.)
  • It’s possible to be “besotted” by a fan that has traveled from the Midwest to sit in your driveway in hopes of playing a song for you. And it’s possible to tell a fairly lengthy story about it, including a two-hour nap that lasted five minutes, and the concept of an “invincible smile.” (I want to steal that.)
  • He used to like to perform “If I were a Carpenter” regularly, but that song has reached its expiration date in the Ramblin’ Jack repertoire, so if you request it, you will get to listen to him explain why.
  • Six seconds of silence on stage is worth $600 of show time. I did not check the math; it’s possible I got one of the numbers wrong.

Jack had more to tell me, but I can only write so fast, and he was due for an interview with a British author who wanted insights on the Beat Generation authors that Jack crossed paths with. (It seems to me that Jack Elliot lived the life that Jack Kerouac wanted to live but couldn’t quite pull off.)

If Jack waits another eight years to come back to San Diego, he’ll be 100 years old. But he could catch a cold and have to cancel, so I reckon it’s best we catch him this time around. Clean off your cowboy hat, bring Kleenex if you can, and wear your invincible smile.

Ramblin’ Jack comes to the Belly Up, June 30, 7pm. Cindy Lee Berryhill opens.

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