SOUL OF A MAN
Jack Elliott is, in the truest sense of the term, a self-made man. As some people feel born into the wrong era -the wrong body or the wrong gender- Jack recognized himself having been given the wrong name and delivered into the wrong geographical location; and was so at a time in our nation's history -the early 1930s- when the differences between, say, urban and rural, northeast and southwest, were as vast and deeply poetic as they were practical.
Young Jack Elliott -nee, Elliott Charles Adnopoz- seemed to divine this instinctively and, so, laid his given name to rest, summoned a new identity, fell into its service, and began to live the life that would make his newly avowed mythology wholly authentic. Upon attending a rodeo at New York's Madison Square Garden as a boy, Jack had his version of a religious epiphany when he recognized his spiritual heritage in the faces of men with leathery skin, dirty necks, and hat-shaded eyes that seemed always to be scanning for a horizon; saw stars in the luminous dust kicked up by horses, and heard his own true voice rise from the mouths of cowboy singers. Their songs told stories that were simultaneously funny and tragic, full of wiseacre smarts and deep human sympathy...songs about outlaws, two-timing lawyers, star-crossed lovers, buffalo skinners and dustbowl refugees -backdoor men, every one. Like an actor playing himself, Jack gave them all his full voice, and in return the stories all added to his own.
The rest of his biography has been told to satisfaction, I dare say: his running away from home to join a rodeo; his musical debt and personal devotion to Woody Guthrie; his influence on two generations of folk-infused, rock-enthused acolytes; his fast-times, rakish good-looks and keening power when pushing his raspy tenor voice over a raised guitar; his being dubbed "Ramblin'" by Odetta's mother, and not because of his wont to travel...
Fair enough. What might be worth noting here, though, is that as he stands before us now, at 77, Jack Elliott is no less the sly, wide-eyed, griot that he was in 1954, when he first hot-footed it to London and held the stage in personification of something new and truly American: the folksinger lending his voice to an old tradition on his way to inventing a new one.
As a young teen myself, in 1976, I had fallen for Woody Guthrie's seminal autobiography "Bound For Glory" and read all of his song lyrics I could get my hands on; and I held in my heart and mind an impression of him as some kind of a cross between Mark Twain, Che Guevara and Abraham Lincoln, so important was he in my estimation. But in the suburbs north of Detroit where I was living, there was no such thing as a "folk" section in the local record store, and I had never heard any of his songs (save the one every grade-schooler knows) hit the air. Rifling through the eclectic stash of donated vinyl records, though, in the back of our public library one afternoon -the Broadway cast recording of "Oklahoma!," Ezra Pound reading his poetry, Julie London, Mario Lanza- there it was:
Ramblin' Jack Elliott Sings The Songs of Woody Guthrie.
I'm sure I quite literally jumped when I pulled the album free, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. I took the LP home and played it over endlessly for two weeks and understand now that Jack illuminated Woody for me in a way that still tempers my perceptions. It was likely the first authentic folk music I'd ever encountered, save for Bob Dylan's first record (for which, it turns, out Jack served as the template), and it opened the gate for me.
One decade later, as a struggling singer and songwriter living in New York, I would encounter the real-life Jack Elliott under circumstances that would've seemed unimaginable to the youth I had been: I was enlisted to ride in a limo out to JFK airport, grab the late-arriving Ramblin' Jack as he stepped out of the jet way, and whisk him to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet already in progress, where he was to join in accepting Woody Guthrie's posthumous induction. We hit it off just fine during the brisk ride, but saw each other only twice over the next 20 years: once when my tour crossed his in Italy in 1992, and at an impromptu group performance in Austin just two years ago. The latter inspired me to drag him onto the film soundtrack for I'm Not There on which I was working, and that inspired a new thought of its own: what would it be like to make a full album with Jack? Not just a collection of disparate songs from his well-worn performance catalogue, but an album that played like a movie, constructed with purpose and held together by a conceptual frame; one that might incline Jack to learn more songs and do something he perhaps hadn't exactly done before: lead a raucous band on a search for the way in and through.
I pitched the idea that he interpret country blues music from the depression era of his birth...songs as dark, funny and strange as is he and the times that produced them, and also ones that still resonate in these turbulent days: songs from the blues masters Jack had known during their latter-day resurgence -and his own ascension- in the early sixties (Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis); songs that share shape and subject with many folk songs of the same period but speak with a particular poetry to struggle, love, justice and mortality -off-handedly and all at once. Back in that day, it's relevant to mention, there was little distinction made between country, blues, folk, pop and jazz music. It was purely a matter of inflection, and everyone was dipping from the same stream. Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong and neither had to shift a gear for the wheels to turn. Ballads by The Carter Family sat readily alongside Charlie Patton's speaking-in-tongues; and Robert Johnson reportedly sang Bing Crosby hits on street corners with the same hell-bent drive he gave his own material.
The "country blues," I reasoned, might be new to Jack Elliott as a recording concept, but the form is as natural to his gait as anything else he's ever deemed to approach.
I needn't have pitched so hard. Jack seemed intrigued by the notion from the start, and had no trouble reading the songs as pertinent to him. He pounced on each one as it came up during the four days of recording in my basement studio, gave each a face of suave cunning, and was as unexpectedly arch as Bob Hope might've seemed strolling through a Fellini tableau. He's using an old language but always speaking in the present tense.
The studio ensemble (which included multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, Los Lobos leader David Hidalgo, get-out-of-jail-free bassist David Piltch, keyboard poet Keefus Cinancia, drumming phenom Jay Bellerose, and Mt. Rushmore-candidate-in-waiting Van Dyke Parks) took their cue from Jack, and their approach to the music was that of diamond miners: they blasted their way through craggy rock and picked at promise with a fervor that wasn't the least bit precious or genre-reverent. Jack played guitar on a number of songs, but elected to set it aside at times too so as to croon from the high wire, arms waving, knock-kneed and weaving with every lurch of the band, through graveyard romps, brothel hymns and parlor waltzes -nobody more surprised or delighted than he.
That Jack is still with us, still twisting the ends and feeding a crazy thread through the needle's eye of both song and story, is a testament not only to him but to the power of the folk tradition of which he remains one of the chief practitioners. Things get bigger when stripped down small, louder when whispered; and as Jack has spent his whole life attesting, truths are illuminated by the tallest tales that a man can conjure.
Joe Henry South Pasadena, CA