Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s first job was a rodeo hand after he ran away from his childhood home in Brooklyn. Not long after, he apprenticed under Woody Guthrie. Not long after that, Bob Dylan apprenticed under Jack. He’s only written four songs in his entire life, but one of those songs was a personal favorite of Townes Van Zandt. His newest album A Stranger Here (out now on Anti) is made up of blues standards and features Van Dyke Parks on piano. He had his hip replaced just last week. This interview by Kevin Ferguson.
Can you still do the 45-second yodel at the end of ‘Muleskinner Blues?’
I haven’t sung ‘Muleskinner Blues’ in a couple of years. But actually I was going to get a lung test at the hospital one day. The doctors put me on this machine and they told me that I had a problem with my lungs—that it wasn’t reading good. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll show you guys!’ So I looked at the clock on the wall and I waited ‘til the second hand came up the twelve and I started my yodel which I believe was supposed to be 45 seconds long. But under the added stimulation of having two young doctors watching me and the clock and all—and having just done the lung test, which was like a warm up exercise—I held that note for sixty seconds! A couple of years later I went back to the hospital for another lung test and I had two new doctors—but the same machine, the same old story. I did the test and they said it wasn’t a good reading and I said, ‘OK, I’ll show you guys, too!’ And I looked up at the wall for the second hand again and I started my sixty-second yodel again, but that time I held that note for seventy seconds! But I haven’t tried it much since then. And of course they repeated their diagnosis about what they thought was wrong, and I thought, ‘You guys are a bunch of spoilsports! I ain’t going back here!’
Does the yodel require practice?
I’ve never been known to do any practicing of the guitar or singing—the only practice I get is when I’m on stage. I’m gonna be practicing again soon though, because I need to learn these new songs that I recorded almost ten months ago. I recorded them last June—they’re on a new album that’s just coming out in a few days now? I don’t know any of those songs. I didn’t learn them when I went down there. I was just reading them off the paper.
How did you choose the songs for that album?
I didn’t choose them. The record company suggested them to me—they had this concept in their mind of me doing these funky old blues songs, and I thought, ‘OK, that sounds like a good idea!’ I didn’t want to be argumentative. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even like about half the songs! I listened to them for three months about five times a day, and I never learned a single one! There was only one that I already knew, and I had been singing it for about fifty years—the ‘How Long Blues.’ But I sang Leadbelly’s version, and this is not Leadbelly’s version. This is a different version—the one by the guy that wrote it. I think he was a piano player. The only reason that record so good is because the musicians who were backing me up are a bunch of geniuses! They had done their homework—they knew the songs pretty well, and we did it like a huge jam session. That too is unusual for me because I don’t normally do jam sessions. The best way you can learn and improve your technique on guitar is to work out with other musicians—to play live. I did a lot of that for the first ten years or so that I was playing guitar. But after I got to traveling around and playing professionally more and more, I sort of lost interest in going out and jamming all the time. I love playing with those guys! They were great. Jay Belrose on drums—Van Dyke Parks on piano. And I knew Van Dyke from about twenty years back—we were drinking buddies in L.A.!
What has been the biggest revelation in your life?
Biggest revelation! I had a marvelous time last night. I just got out of the hospital about ten days ago—had a new hip put in, and I just started to walk back to normal. I’m walking with a walking stick. A friend of mine told me that Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard were playing in a theatre near where I lived, so he drove me over there in my truck because I’m not ready to drive yet. I got a special cushion I can sit on ‘cause it’s kind of painful to sit in a car. I got about two more weeks to go—I’ll be ready to go on the road. But right now I’m just barely getting used to having this new hip in me, and it gets a little painful sometimes. But I walked a mile a day before yesterday, and that was a little bit too much. It took me an hour and a half to get the mail! But I went to see Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard last night! They did a great show. Joel Selvin was there from the San Francisco Chronicle, and he had just written a big story about them… so a good time was had by all, and I’m starting to like get ready to face show biz and being on the road again. So—the greatest revelation! Well, I guess it was when I climbed the rigging in an old whaler in a museum ship in Mystic, Connecticut. I’ve always loved boats—water and clipper ships. So I met some people who sailed in these old square riggers, and I was memorizing a lot of information about boats and navigation. I went and climbed up the rigging that cold winter’s day. My hands were so cold I could only go up about one third of the way! So then I climbed back down to the deck to warm my hands. It took me three separate climbs—about an hour—to gradually work my way up to the whale lookout about 125 feet above the deck on this old sailing whale ship called the Charles W. Morgan. That was kind of an exercise in control of cold and fear of heights, and learning to accept being alone in the cold. A lot of my heroes were singlehanded navigators, and I’d read about it. But I myself have never done a long trip solo. I had a small sailboat in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore from when I was about 16 to when I was 20. When I’d sail it in the wintertime, they’d call that ‘frostbite dinghy sailing.’
Frostbite dinghy sailing?
Warmly dressed, of course. You’d wear ex-Navy foul-weather gear—wool and such. It was very fun. But then my first performance was playing for World War II survivors in a hospital in New York. These guys were pretty fucked-up from being in the war and they lost legs and arms and stuff—they didn’t make a very good audience. Some were laughing, some were crying, some were cussing, some were telling jokes, and some were even listening and enjoying the music! That was my first schooling in handling an audience. But I have never been able to handle drunks very well. My L.A. gigs are a bit trying, too, because the audience at McCabe’s guitar shop are mostly elderly people and they’re serious fans and they’re dead quiet—sort of like in church! I’ve been known to go asleep on stage in that venue! So I have to be a stand-up comic at the beginning. Get them out of their reverent worshipful mood that they’re in and wake ‘em up! Of course, there’s about a hundred guitars up on the wall there—people are afraid to clap for fear that they might start a guitar avalanche off the wall!
Do you still play your old Gretsch?
Well, it was stolen and it was missing for 23 years! I got it back—I had a local guitar maker take it back and glue it all together again. He did a pretty good job. It’s got a lot of scars of battle on it. I asked him to please not make it look any prettier than it did before I lost it. It’s been over the Alps on the back of a motor scooter in a blizzard, all over Europe for about three years! So I don’t need to kind of expose it to any more travel—it’s a museum piece. The other day, I hauled it out in its case and showed it to a friend who’s a boat builder. He stomped on it and he was amazed—I was amazed—how good the Gretsch still sounds and holds up despite all of the glue that’s been added to it. Because I got it back from this thief because he saw me singing with Kris Kristofferson in the same theater where I was last night to see Kris. He must have had a pang of guilt when he saw me playing on stage without it—he knocked on the stage door later and he said his name, said he was a friend of so-and-so. He gave me his number and I called him and went up to visit at his farm and got my guitar back. It looked like he carefully removed the guitar from the case, put it on the ground, and rolled over it with a tractor two or three times! It was a mess! Totally wrecked! He said a friend of his gave it to him and stuff like, ‘I didn’t know where you were. I thought you were out of town, Jack! Here’s the guitar—take good care of it.’ I was very tempted to say, ‘Why didn’t you take good care of it?’ But I thought it wouldn’t be polite. Especially when I’m sitting in his house drinking his wine and he’s treating me like a guest. I really think that kid stole my guitar. It took a couple of years for my guitar-maker friend to glue that thing back together again! You know, I loaned that guitar to the Experience Music Project museum and they had it travelling all over America for two years as an exhibit of early Bob Dylan influences. They had it in a glass case along with some pertinent information about the guitar because that was the guitar I had played on my first early recordings that Bob had gotten from some friends in Minneapolis when they first turned them on to Woody Guthrie and then to me.
Did you ever really call him your son?
No! I never did! The press called him ‘son of Jack Elliott.’ They thought it was kind of a cute way to announce the arrival of a new talent on the scene. And I was very proud of it because he was very obviously imitating me, although other people saw it more plainly than I could see it. I’d sing a song on stage and a minute later Bob would jump on and start doing something that he just noticed that I was doing—totally unabashedly! It used to piss people off—they didn’t understand why I was allowing it. They thought I ought to crack down on the bastard! But I liked him. He was my friend—sort of unofficially like a student. That’s the way I learned from Woody, too. I was out hanging out with Woody for about four years, starting in 1951. He just told me a lot of stories and we’d play music together. I learned a lot about guitar playing with Woody.
What was the first song he taught you?
Actually, I learned it off a record of his—it was called ‘Hard Travelling.’ I actually knew it by heart when I first met Woody. I’d been listening to that record for about two months before I finally called him one day. I got his phone number through a friend of mine. I called him up and said ‘I’ve been listening to your records, and I sure like your music.’ And he said ‘Well, come on over—bring your guitar! We’ll knock off a couple of tunes together! Don’t come today, though—I got a bellyache.’ And indeed, he almost died. He had appendicitis.
What’s the worst indignity about travelling by air?
Having to give them my guitar and put in baggage where they can break it! I was very lucky they’ve never broken it. But I’ve had many, many friends who had their valuable guitars broken by airlines, Earl Scruggs had his banjo broken by one of those airlines, and so he bought an airplane to learn how to fly on his own! I’ve had my suitcase lost four or five times—always got it back a few days back. I remember when they used to have beautiful stewardesses and nice food and silverware. Metal silverware! That was the old days when the plane stunk of cigarette smoke and coffee, and I didn’t mind!
How did it feel knowing that ‘912 Greens’ was one of the last songs Townes Van Zandt ever heard?
Well, it felt very good that night—I didn’t know that he was going to die. He didn’t even let me know that he had a broken hip. He had tripped over a tree stump the day before and he was frightened to go to a hospital. But he needed to get a surgical operation to get his hip fixed. He put it off ac couple of days before his loved ones finally talked him into going to the hospital. Now, my father was a surgeon. When you operate an alcoholic, you have to give them alcohol. Otherwise they’ll die of shock! And those doctors must’ve not known that. You know, there are a lot of doctors who just don’t know anything nowadays. Isn’t that funny? I don’t know what they teach in medical school. There’s a lot to be found out about the medical profession. He said he liked ‘912 Greens.’ I know he did because every time I talked to him he mentioned that. And I thanked him and I said, ‘You have a nice New Year’s.’ He died about eight hours after that.
What do you think America lost with the death of Odetta?
She had a great powerful voice and a lot of spirit. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman and I just don’t think they make a lot of people like that anymore. She sang Leadbelly songs and old folk songs. She sang a lot of Leadbelly songs. We did five or six concerts together, spread out over two years time. When she died they had a big tribute to Odetta, so I made a videotape and they played it on a big screen.
Is it true that her mom was the first person to call you ‘Ramblin’?’
That’s correct! I like to tell a lot of stories, you know—long stories. I had just met Odetta about a month before and she lived across the street from a man that had several Model A Fords. I had just purchased a Model A and I went to see the man about fixing this and that I because he was an expert. The first time I visited Odetta, her mother answered the door and said, ‘Odetta is in the bathtub—you can wait here in the living room.’ So I waited and I waited and I waited—I could hear the water splashing in the bathtub. I could hear Odetta singing to herself! She seemed very content to be in the bathroom for over a half hour. She’s a large person. Anyway, I got tired of waiting so I went up to the bathroom door and said ‘Hey, Odetta—it’s me, Jack! I’m here!’ and I started telling stories about my adventures. Her mother thought that was odd. The next time I visited Odetta and knocked on her door, her mother looks out the little peephole, saw my face and I heard her holler, ‘ODETTA, RAMBLIN’ JACK IS HERE!’ That was the first time I heard that name. I’ve heard it an awful lot since then!
Was On The Road the only manuscript that’s ever been read to you?
That’s the only one! I’ve read manuscripts for movies and stuff, but that was the first and last time anybody read me their manuscript. We drank some wine, had some other things and we sat on the floor. Jack read to us for three days!
How do you stay awake through that?
I don’t think we had any trouble staying awake—it was such a wonderful story. That was in the year 1953 and the book came out in 1956, or ‘57! Yeah, ‘57—it was four years prior to the publishing of the book. So when it finally came out I was in Paris and I gave a reading of some of the chapters of that book and along with a reading of some of Woody’s writings. I performed, too. I was performing in concert with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in Paris.
How do you survive on two dollars a day when you’re a rodeo hand?
Well, it was in 1947—I could get bacon and eggs and a cup of coffee and sometimes still have enough money left over for a malted milk later! But that was it—I was pretty much a one-meal-a-day kid for about three months. Well, the latter part of that time I was on the ranch I was paid 5 dollars a week, but they fed us. I had nineteen flapjacks every morning! The cook made the most delicious pancakes! To this day, I still love buckwheat pancakes—they’re very different. A unique flavor. They taste rich and healthy without being too sweet. It’s sort of like a good bowl of oatmeal!
Is there a trick to make the most money possible while busking?
Aw, I never made much money busking! When I was busking in Paris regularly—practically every night—in the wintertime, we would work for approximately one hour and collect the equivalent of about $8 U.S., which was about enough to pay our room rent and one or two meals. Breakfast was just coffee and a croissant, lunch was a ham sandwich, and dinner was a beefsteak and frites.
When was the last time you rode a horse?
I rode a horse when I was watching Larry Mayham practice roping. It was at a Colorado film festival. Before that, I rode a horse about a year ago on a round-up finding some cattle up in the mountains of Northern California. Bringing them down in a rainstorm and sleeping in a very leaky tent with a cowboy who snored. After about three hours of soaking in my sleep, I apologized to him for abandoning him and went into my Ford truck. There, I had a wool blanket and 2 full hours of good sleep until I heard the cook rustling up the coffee pot. I was up like a flash! We couldn’t even brand the calves—they were too wet! But I like riding horses—I just don’t get to ride them enough. I used to have a horse for twelve years and rode him constantly in the hills of Northern California.
What was his name?
His name was Young Brigham. I had him on a record album cover—the album was named after him, too. The saddle maker that sold me that horse told me, ‘You know, Jack, if you put a picture of Brigham on the cover of your record album, the hay will be tax deductible!’
Is that for real?
It was a good sales point! I was already in love with the horse, anyway.
How do you think your music and Woody’s music fits in with today, as we’re risking a second Great Depression?
I think it fits in perfectly. He was singing about hard times, and he went through the hard times and he saw it and he wrote about it. And now we’re getting ready to have some more. I think people appreciate the music because it means something to them. Back as recently as a year ago, the country was still in a blind bourgeois alcoholic drug-induced Hollywood-induced fog of, ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme! Gotta have a fast car, gotta have a big fat four-wheel drive, just like in the movies.’ We were totally stupid—in a crazed state of mind—which helped to bring about the fall. It’s like the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Stuff goes up and comes back down again. It’s gravity!
What’s the one lesson we all should have learned from history but never will?
I think that there’s a very good chance that most of the people will never have learned anything. Because it seems like it’s almost built into human nature that it’s easy for certain politicians to exist. As long as the politicians do exist, they’re always going to lie to the public and the deprivation and destruction of schools will continue. And California is the leading state in backwardness for education. It’s still shocking and hard to believe! I was raised on mom, apple pie, red white and blue, ‘America the Beautiful’—I was very patriotic in my heart, although I was lucky enough to not have to go to war. I was too young for World War II and later I just fell through the cracks. I probably would’ve had to be a draft dodger or refuse to go. I don’t approve of warfare and I don’t like killing animals or people. Although I used to love a good steak!
So you’re a vegetarian?
I’m part idealist and part hypocrite. I’m part yogi and part bull-rider. I’m all things good and all things bad! No, I’m not, Hitler was! No, I’m not a vegetarian. But I am trying to cut down on meat as I’ve found out that red meat is not as good for you as I had once supposed that it was. And yet I crave it! But I’m starting to eat more lamb. I love lamb curry and I love lamb chops. I like Indian food a lot, too. Theoretically, I’m much more a vegetarian than I am in practice. And I don’t smoke cigarettes. I did smoke cigarettes for about twenty years. I started when I was fifteen, rolling my own cigarettes at the rodeo ranch. I thought that was cool! Then I started smoking Camels and Luckys and all that trash. I was very lucky that I didn’t get seriously addicted to tobacco. One day I decided I was really tired and bored with it, and I just stopped buying and smoking cigarettes. I didn’t have a difficult time quitting tobacco. I know that most people have a hard time—they say it’s harder to kick than heroin!
What was it like getting an award from Bill Clinton?
Well, of course I don’t ever rehearse what I’m going to say. It seems like it comes out better ad-libbed, in the style of Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers. They never rehearsed or planned out what they were going to say. And so here comes the president and he’s about to shake hands with me in the White House. I said, ‘It’s wonderful to meet you, Bill! Is it ok if I call you Bill?’ And he said, ‘Of course, Jack.’ And I felt like he was my friend! I like him! And I had come in with no preconceived notion about him. I just looked in his eyes and I thought, ‘This guy is OK. Good man.’ When I met his wife, I said, ‘I’m Ramblin’ Jack!’ and she just hollered, ‘I KNOW YOU, RAMBLIN’ JACK!’ It reverberated down the hall of the White House! It was as if she was back in Arkansas knocking on the back porch to borrow some sugar. I thought, ‘These guys are down home folks!’
What was the most memorable time you sang the national anthem?
As a matter of fact, I sang it the one time we were being serenaded by some musicians on foot who were in blue. It was the U.S. Marine Corp band, and they were playing all these tunes, mostly patriotic songs. So I chimed in with them on, ‘America, America, God shed his grace on thee.’ I had had ONE shot of scotch and two glasses of red wine, which is about enough. I was a little bit in my cups—as they say—but I didn’t dare look but my wife sitting next to me peeked over. I was singing a little too loud because I was carried away with patriotic fervor. Bill was looking right at me, grinning broadly. He just dug it! And later after the dinner was over, immediately I had to scooch over and allow Bill to sneak past me, ahead of some other people. As he walked by me, I put my hand up to my mouth as if I had a secret to whisper to him. And in fact the G-Men by the other wall couldn’t see what I was saying, and I told Bill, ‘I heard a rumor that Bob Dylan is in town tonight and I thought we could dress you up in a disguise and sneak you over there.’ He threw his head back and laughed, ‘That would be fun!’
RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT ON FRI.. APR. 17, AND SAT., APR. 18, AT McCABE’S GUITAR SHOP, 3101 PICO BLVD., SANTA MONICA. 8 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. MCCABES.COM. RAMBLIN JACK ELLIOTT’S A STRANGER HERE RELEASES TUE., APR. 7, ON ANTI-. VISIT RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT AT RAMBLINJACK.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/RAMBLINJACKELLIOTT.