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They don't call him Ramblin' Jack Elliott just because he runs around with a guitar on his back.
But today, on one of the first sunny breaks from a torrent of West Coast rain, the spirited old cowboy folksinger is cooped up in a Point Reyes, California, restaurant, an hour north of San Francisco and near his home in the population-50 town of Marshall. Outside, the hills near the coast look like smooth, moss-covered river rocks. Inside, Elliott sets aside a stitched-up taupe cowboy hat and works on a cup of black tea. He's here to talk about Friends of Mine, a new album of duets with Guy Clark, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, and others. Jan Currie, his fiancee of several years, looks on. ("We got engaged," Elliott says, "in the Ace Hardware in Eureka, Nevada, which is a good place to buy a ring, because it's sitting on top of a gold mine.")
As Elliott talks, Currie occasionally pats his blue jeans to stop a tale from splintering into a half-dozen tangents. "I'm a storyteller," he says matter-of-factly. "I've been accused of being a poet, but I haven't explored that."
Ramblin' Jack Elliott is 67 and still plays 50 live shows a year. He's Northern California's greatest folk minstrel and one of its finest storytellers. Inseparably, he's also a man alive, the kind of guy who loves to whittle, rope, tie knots, sand wooden boats, work cattle, drive trucks. Others call him the bridge between the old, weird, prewar American folk music and its early '60s coffeehouse cousin. For his part, Elliott calls himself "a goddamn good picker and a goddamn good driver."
"I don't like travelin'," Elliott says. "I like driving around in an old diesel truck, but flying and airports and airlines and eating all that bad food and listening to them high -school girls on speed chewing gum and talking into the microphone telling me to buckle my seat belt--I don't like to be told what to do."
Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn in 1931, Elliott assumed the Ramblin' Jack handle after he ran away with a rodeo as a young teen. (He was Buck Elliott in the interim.) After picking up a couple of guitar chords around the rodeo and then a stint in Greenwich Village folk-music circles, Elliott met Woody Guthrie--one of the most important figures in the music of this century, a troubadour, an honest poet, a writer of more than 1,000 songs, a follower of and a believer in folk, and the man Elliott would be associated with for the rest of his life.
In the year and a half Elliott lived with Guthrie, and the few years that he would travel around the country with him, the young man learned everything about playing guitar and singing from his senior: the old cowboy songs and the Dust Bowl ballads, how to flat pick, and how to sing simply. (He also acquired a couple of Guthrie's bad habits: Elliott, too, went through a handful of wives and never really learned how to deal with a record company.) In 1955, Elliott set out on his own; soon after, Guthrie drew back into illness, fighting the decade-long bout with Huntington's chorea that would end with his death in 1967.
Elliott was one of the first American folksingers to tour England and Europe; he was rewarded with appreciation from Germans and Danes and Englishmen hungry for American traditionals. (Ethnomusic-ologist Alan Lomax saw him at that time and told the folks back home that Elliott was his favorite young singer.) By the time he got back to the States and the center of the Village folk scene, he was still singing Guthrie songs: His first American platter, recorded in 1960, was Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie. On that record, his version of "Hard Travelin'"--his "first favorite Woody Guthrie song"--played exactly like the version Guthrie laid down for famed folk producer Moses Asch years earlier.
"For years I did Woody Guthrie songs exactly the way that Woody did," he says. "And I got a lot of criticism from his friends and admirers. Some of them might have loved him as much as I did, but they didn't like how I was being a perfect mimic, aping Woody Guthrie down to the very last movement and gesture and facial expression. I'm sure they found it unnerving. Perhaps I owe them an apology, but I've changed the way I do a lot of Woody Guthrie songs."
"Hard Travelin'," which Elliott distinguishes from Guthrie's plain treatment by giving more heart, more emotion, and a pinch of shtick on the new Friends of Mine, is a good example. "Buffalo Skinners," a traditional that Guthrie used to do, is even better. Like most songs Elliott plays, it's got a back story. He had heard Guthrie play the song, but Elliott couldn't figure out the part that gives the song its driving sense of doom: You had to play the tune in straight major chords, but sing it in a minor key. He asked Guthrie to help him out.