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In the mid-1950s, Ramblin' Jack Elliott busked his way across Europe, outfitted in a Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and a pair of worn Levi's, the true personification of the American cowboy singer. In London, where a neo-folk fad called "skiffle" was driving all the young kids mad, Elliott's lightning-fast flat-picking style, railway eyes, and rogue tongue held a number of fresh-faced musicians in sway (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, and Donovan among them). After recording a couple of records in England, Elliott returned to New York City and found himself the stuff of legend. With a folk revival sweeping Greenwich Village, everyone wondered what had become of the hollow-cheeked rover who was thought to be the true progeny of Woody Guthrie (who was then lying in a hospital bed dying of Huntington's chorea).
As we find out in the rich and textural The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, a new documentary written and directed by his daughter Aiyana Elliott, Elliott Charles Adnopoz was born the son of a wealthy Jewish doctor in Brooklyn. From an early age, the child had a cowboy's heart; at 14, he ran away to join the rodeo, learning to rope steer and pick guitar from a rodeo clown. Hearing Woody Guthrie on the radio, Elliott set out to find the "grandfather of folk." Eventually moving in with the singer and his family, Elliott learned to emulate the older man's raw, untouched singing voice and lazy Oklahoma accent. When Elliott returned from England in 1961, it was commonly accepted that he sounded more like Guthrie than Guthrie ever had, something in which the Guthries seemed to take no uncertain pride.
He would carry on Guthrie's legacy in unexpected ways: A young Bob Dylan glommed on to Elliott, striking an imitation close enough that his first gig was billed "The Son of Jack Elliott." While detractors called Dylan a copycat, Elliott readily admitted that Dylan just wanted to sound like Guthrie, which was all he'd ever wanted too.
In spite of his honest talents, or perhaps because of the honesty of his talents, widespread fame would always elude Elliott. His interest in open-range experience seemed more important than making a name for himself; gigs were more of a means than an end, more an excuse to hit the road and gather life in truck-stop snippets. While eventual resentment toward the music industry would cause him to turn his back on recording for nearly 20 years, he could never turn his back on the road. Rambling, if not in his blood, was certainly in his soul. In Aiyana's documentary, we see Elliott through a varying lens of grainy home movies, oddly tinted television appearances, faded snapshots, and full-color interviews with the musicians, wives, and friends who loved him. And we see Elliott through the eyes of a daughter struggling with a never-present father, as she rides with him from gig to gig, desperately trying to get him to talk to her.
While these moments are obviously poignant to the director, they should have been left on the cutting room floor or in a therapist's file. Certainly the scene in which Elliott chooses in a song introduction to apologize to his daughter for a lifetime of neglect, speaking to her as an audience member and fan rather than kin, is more telling of Elliott's pathology than any of Aiyana's dejected musings could be. (As is her genuine off-screen rejoinder: "Shut up and play!")
Barring this self-indulgence, Aiyana has managed to capture a rich slice of American musical history, while exploring the tumultuous life of what may be America's last cowboy bard. And, to her immortal credit, she has prompted the release of the best collection of her father's tunes to date: The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack comes complete with introductions by Johnny Cash and President Bill Clinton (during the presentation of the 1998 Medal of Arts Award); the humorous, sprawling segues for which Elliott is famous; duets with Cash, Guthrie, Dylan, and the aching, dusky-voiced Odetta; and songs that take us from 1961 to 1998.
The only thing missing from the movie is a duet between the young, reedy Elliott and baritone banjo picker Derroll Adams. Still, Elliott's 1998 rendition of "If I Were a Carpenter" and 1996 version of "Pastures of Plenty" more than make up for the omission: They are among the most beautiful translations of longing ever recorded. The Ballad of Ramblin' Jackopens on Friday, Sept. 1, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (352-0810) with a live performance by folk singer Deborah Pardes at 7 and 9 p.m. Ramblin' Jack also opens at the Shattuck in Berkeley (510-843-3456) and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (454-1222), where Elliott will make a special appearance with the film on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Call theaters for ticket prices and regular show times.
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