The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack

This 2000 bio-documentary movie of Ramblin' Jack Elliot provides a valuable view of this minor legend and important link in the folk music food chain. It should be considered necessary viewing for anyone with an interest in American folk music, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or even fans of A Mighty Wind.

He was Woody Guthrie's main actual disciple and traveling companion during his last active years. Along with that, he became the main depository of Guthrie's musical knowledge, and the main teacher handing it down.

By the time Dylan was coming up in the sixties, Guthrie was pretty well on his deathbed. It was from hanging with Ramblin' Jack that Dylan picked up most of his Guthrie knowledge.

Indeed, Elliott had codified the basic sound and style of Guthrie into his own similar but distinctive style. Watching the vintage 50s and early 60s Ramblin' Jack videos would be a revelation for Dylan fans. Stylistically, the early folk Dylan looks directly imitative of Jack.

Dylan soon surpassed his real mentor artistically and commercially, in significant part because as Ramblin' Jack himself says he lacked the focus and ambition of Dylan. Then Dylan promptly dropped any association with him when he became a superstar. This seems like a particularly callous and ungracious move from Dylan. Ah, well.

Some of Elliott's prime popularity was in England during the 50's, which besides cooler guys like the Stones had a more obvious influence on their idea of a folk boom which was the skiffle movement. It's particularly funny watching his disdainful comments on skiffle. He's trying to hold back, but can't quite avoid expressing his contempt.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott was born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in 1931, the son of a Jewish doctor in Brooklyn. He apparently had a rather severe mother of whom he doesn't speak. There was an interesting minute of footage in which even HER OWN SISTER is trying to explain discretely that NO ONE liked her.

Which no doubt contributed to his early dreams of being a cowboy. He earned his designation of cowboy by, for starters, literally running away from home to join the rodeo. Indeed, he has put a great deal of emphasis on, as per a song prominent in his repertoire, "Hard Travelin'." Indeed, it's about as interesting to hear him tell his stories as to sing- especially some about traveling with Woody.

His emphasis on hard traveling fills in his, let us say, lack of interest in the Kingston Trio and such. Watch this, then the Folksmen in A Mighty Wind trying to impress us with a song about how they "Never Did No Wandering."

This film was made by a daughter, Aiyana Elliot. This is both a significant blessing and a bad curse. On the one hand, she got a lot of co-operation from lots of people in ways that others might not. Particularly, she got good interviews with Mom.

Most notably, Mom (wife #2 of 4, if memory serves) talked about her early days running with Jack. She remembered a particular night watching him do a show, playing "If I Were a Carpenter" and suddenly being filled with a previously unknown desire to have children. And so the trouble begins.

Then they had some vintage footage of him performing the song, and you could see it. By the time he's singing "would you have my baby?" even I'M thinking strongly about it.

The big problem and bad curse of having the daughter making the film, of course, is that he's Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and not going to stay home much. Thus Aiyana ends up making half the damned movie about how bad a daddy he was for never being home. You can see him in the late 1990s out doing his thing with the girl hanging around with her camera nagging at him about never having been home. After apparently months of her gently guilting at him with camera rolling, poor Jack is pleading "What do you want from me?"

Frankly, after awhile I was ready to just reach over and slap her. It wasn't perfect, but quit your whining. You got to have Ramblin' Jack Elliott for your daddy. You got fed, and got good stories and such when he was around, and bragging rights. It's not like he was beating and abusing the child. Under such circumstances, by age 40 or so it is time to get the hell over it.

Perhaps that's a bit personally harsh. I might should show more sympathy for her continuing hurt feelings. It's just that I don't care. She's boring, and using the attraction of her dad's name to inflict her extremely uninteresting low level pain on the rest of us. Daddy's name is what the folks are paying for here. Insisting on pushing your own little heartbreaks on a disinterested audience at some point is just obnoxious self-indulgence.

Whereas that whining time could have been far better filled by more vintage footage, like that of Jack on the Johnny Cash show. Ah, that's good stuff. More Ramblin' Jack, I say.

Overall though, this film gives an invaluable look at an American original, despite the whiny daughter. It's well worth a watch.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack

The Essential Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Early Sessions

South Coast

 

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