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Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Happy 83rd, Ramblin' Jack by Lauren Daley

Raise what you're drinking to the last cowboy.

The last of the rail-riding poets.

Ramblin' Jack Elliot -- the living link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan -- celebrated his 83rd this weekend.

Happy birthday, Jack.

I've been lucky enough to see Ramblin' Jack twice now, including at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, where, he surprised Beck on stage to duet on Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting For A Train." He hobbled on stage in his dusty boots, his skinny legs clad in pale blue jeans, wearing his signature bolo tie, flannel shirt and ten-gallon hat.

It didn't look like he planned it, either -- he had a Poland Spring bottle in his hand that he didn't put down, and when he couldn't raise the mic, the octogenarian knelt down to sing on his knees.
It was an epic moment for everyone there, including Beck, who said after Jack left the stage, 
"Well that was an honor. I think I'm done now."

I saw Jack for the first time back in 2011. I covered his concert at a southeastern Massachusetts venue for my music column:

He wore almost exactly the same outfit, and his hour-long set included an incredible rendition of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," "House of the Rising Sun," a cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)," Woody Guthrie's "1914 Massacre," and "Falling Down Blues."

Of course, you don't earn a name like "Ramblin' Jack" without being a talker. Jack can talk.

Throughout the evening, he had the audience gathered 'round and listening like kids listening to a wise ol' granddad.

He told us tales of meeting Woody Guthrie, singing with Bob Dylan, and a Tall Tale about sneaking into folk singer Tim Hardin's house disguised as a house painter.

"It was a hoax, so I could get right up there on the ladder and look down his throat, to see how he sang and learn how he played," Jack told the crowd.

He had a sore throat and allergies, and the night was also peppered with one-liners like: "Thanks for clapping. If I heard someone sing like I just sang, I'd head for hills." And, "I'm not a music-lover, thank God. I like dogs, boats and trucks."

The irony, of course, is that Jack Elliott loves music more than almost anyone.

He's the kid who ran away from his Brooklyn home at 14 to join the rodeo and learned his guitar from a real live cowboy.

In 1950, he sought out Woody Guthrie, moved in with the Guthrie family and rode the rails with Woody from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.

Woody Guthrie, it seemed, had a magic that captivated young folkies, and made them want to be just like him.

Bob Dylan, as we know, imitated the way Woody walked, talked and dressed. But before him, Jack Elliott was so enthralled with Guthrie that he absorbed the inflections and mannerisms, leading Guthrie to remark, "Jack sounds more like me than I do."

In 1954, Jack journeyed through Appalachia, Nashville and to New Orleans to hear authentic American country music. In 1955, he got married and traveled to Europe, inspiring a new generation of budding British rockers -- from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton -- with his American cowboy folk repertoire.

When he returned to America in 1961, he met another young folksinger, Bob Dylan at Woody Guthrie's bedside, and mentored him.

In 1995, Ramblin' Jack received his first of four Grammy nominations and the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, for South Coast (Red House Records). In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Jack the National Medal of the Arts.

According to Jack's Web site, at age 80, he's "still on the road, still seeking those people, places, songs and stories that are hand-crafted, wreaking of wood and canvas, cowhide and forged metal. You'll find him in the sleek lines of a long haul semi-truck, in the rigging of an old sailing ship, in the smell of a fine leather saddle."

The lucky roomful of people at the Narrows Center who saw him saw a living legend and a true entertainer.

As Bob Dylan said in his "Chronicles: Volume One:"

"Most folk musicians waited for you to come to them. Jack went out and grabbed you... Jack was King of the Folksingers."

Here, here.

 

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