"A rodeo friend gave me leather suspenders , which is the only thing I can use to hold my pants up since I lost my ass in the music business" – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
“Everybody’s dying this year,” says folk icon Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some beloved musician dying.”
The 85-year-old folk finger-picker’s morbid observation is prompted when the subject of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing comes up. Elliott, being the infectious, meandering rambler he’s been for decades, has many pockets filled with stories involving just about every well-known figure in the arts world. In Cohen’s case, he tells a quick yarn about the two going out for a Japanese dinner one night in the ’70s. While they waited for their food, Cohen decided to do a headstand, matter-of-factly enough, next to his chair, for about 15 minutes.
“He was studying yoga,” Elliott explains. “It was difficult for the waiters to get around [Cohen], but they weren’t going to stop him.”
It’s the first day in a long time that Elliott feels healthy and chipper. Following a 12-city tour spanning 5,000 miles, the folk hero says a “mystery cough” has kept him bedridden and on prednisone for about a month, but he woke at 6am that morning and strolled through patches of it’s-good-to-be-alive early-morning fog.
Regarded as the son of Woody Guthrie and the father of Bob Dylan, Elliott’s a folk musician’s folk musician who can also be somewhat elusive, which may be the result of not keeping up with some technological advances.
“I’m very good with old trucks and young horses, but I cannot figure out a computer to save my butt,” he admits.
That doesn’t stop his music from being recorded: He’s released over 40 records, been nominated for five Grammy Awards and brought home two wins, including Best Traditional Blues Album for his distinct rearrangement of old country blues staples on 2009’s A Stranger Here.
When asked about receiving the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Alliance International, Elliott instead talks about being one of the 1998 recipients of the National Medal of the Arts, personally awarded by the president of the United States: “I got to see the White House, I got to meet Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton and take photographs of it all.”
Elliott is pleased about his folk mentee Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature: “I’m proud of the kid,” he says. Mentioning Dylan prompts a final tale, about the first time he and Elliott met. Elliott left the U.S. in 1955 and bummed around Europe for six years, singing Woody Guthrie songs and recording albums. Upon returning to the States in 1961, Elliott visited Guthrie at his house in New Jersey on one of his notorious Sunday get-togethers and noticed “a kid with curly hair.”
Elliott summons a very good Dylan impression. “Bobby Dylan said, ‘I listen to all your recordings, Jack,’” Elliott says. “Then [Dylan] starts telling me about all the songs he likes that I recorded in England, which is really where my professional recording career got started. So there was Bob Dylan telling me that he was a big fan of mine and had all of my recordings and he liked all my songs, so I naturally took a liking to him.”
Last October, Elliott was invited to join another one of his folk-friends-for-life, Kris Kristofferson, who scored the 2016 Woody Guthrie Prize in Tulsa, Oklahoma. An all-star benefit concert was held, culminating in Elliott joining Kristofferson on stage for a sweeping rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” with Rodney Crowell and John Flynn.
While Elliott hasn’t released any of his own records since 2009, his presence on other artists’ records remains in demand: Grateful Dead guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir’s killer 2016 solo record Blue Mountain features Ramblin’ Jack (and the Ramblin’ Jackernacle Choir) guest yodeling and hollering on the cowboy tune, “Ki-Yi Bossie.”
Before Elliott’s 1969 performance on The Johnny Cash Show, Cash told the audience, “[Elliott’s] got a song and friend for every mile behind him.”
The world is grateful that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott continues to add clicks to the old odometer of life.
On Wednesday, Elliott will open for longtime buddy and ’70s tourmate, mailman-turned-country star John Prine “(Sam Stone,” “Angel From Montgomery”) at Golden State Theatre in Monterey. It will be a special show because it’s the only date on the books, as of now, featuring both performers on the same bill.
For over 40 years, Prine has been the kind of singer-songwriter that humbly eases into the stage spotlight sans grandiosity, but can still make new listeners feel like they’ve unearthed gold. In the early years, Prine was known for being able to quiet a room full of drunks, who’d end up entranced, hanging on each line as if it was the edge of a cliff. One of his most poignant songs, “Sam Stone,” centers on an injured Korean War veteran who returns home with a Purple Heart and a morphine addiction. Prine’s bygone-era fingerpicking is simple, but masterful, and his words are accessible yet skin-deep: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes… ” It rings over and over again, long after the tune is finished.