At 84, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Teacher to Bob Dylan and Best Friend of Woody Guthrie, is Still Keeping Folk Music Alive

About halfway through talking to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, I realized I’d stopped trying to ask him questions and just let him tell me stories. After all, they don’t call him “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” for nothing.

After 60 years in the folk music world, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has a lot of tales to tell: Lenny Bruce stories, Pete Seeger stories, Carl Sandburg stories, Jack Kerouac stories, and, of course, Bob Dylan stories. As a folk guitarist known for his fingerpicking style and laconic, humorous storytelling, the 84-year-old served as a bridge between the rough and tumble folk music of the 1950s and the countercultural revival of folk music in the 1960s. Bob Dylan looked up to him, and he was a personal friend to Woody Guthrie.

[jump] I hopped on the phone with the Grammy Award-winning folk legend to get the lowdown on his decades of experience in the music industry, as well as his life, in general. Rambling, I discovered, is an art form, and one that Elliott is a pro at.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott plays at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 19, at St. Cyprian’s Church, 2097 Turk St. More info here. 

There’s this semi-famous story of you running away from your parents’ home in Brooklyn and joining the rodeo. Why the rodeo?

I didn’t like anything at all about New York, or cities in general, but I was very much attracted to the idea of cowboy life. I’d been reading about it, too. My parents made the mistake of taking me to see a rodeo when I was 9, and I didn’t run away until I was 15, so for six years I’d been thinking about cowboy stuff. I went back to the rodeo when it came to town every year, so I became a big rodeo fan.

My dad was a doctor, and one thing I was certainly sure of was I didn't want to be a doctor. My dad was a very good doctor, who people loved, and I don’t see too many doctors like him anymore. It’s too bad for the world that I didn’t become a doctor, because we need more doctors like him.

Later, because of my love of horses, I went to school for pre-veterinary, which is some of the same subjects of pre-medicine, of course, so I might have eventually become a doctor or something. But after one semester at the University of Connecticut, I just got tired of school altogether and dropped out. Later, I took a semester at Adelphi College where I learned to fly a B-51. I was interested in flying and adventure and stuff like that.

I spent only three months on that rodeo trip, grooming horses, but there was a clown on that rodeo who played guitar and banjo and played cowboy songs and hillbilly songs. When I got back to New York, I started playing guitar. That rodeo clown was a big influence on me. I loved the music of George Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie, and then I met Woody when I was 19.

By this time, I was using the name Buck Elliott, which is like a bull riding name. I’ve been through a lot of name changes, experimentally. Met Woody in the hospital, then shortly after helped a friend drive out to Travis air force base, and discovered the San Francisco Bay. Took my guitar out and just started serenading people out by the pier. That was 1951 and I was 19 years old. I eventually started living on a schooner in Sausalito with a guy named Commodore Tompkins and his mother, and he was the one that accidentally named me Jack.
Why did he accidentally call you Jack?

He said he didn’t remember, he said he wasn’t very good with names. He was introducing me to his mother and he said, “ma, this is Jack Elliott”. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his mother by correcting him, because I was going by Buck at that time, so I just was Jack then. The name kind of stuck.

When you ran away to the rodeo at 15, was that your first experience with folk music?

Yeah, that was it. That rodeo clown would entertain us rodeo hands and some cowboys in the afternoon and before the evening performance of the show, and we’d put a quarter or so in his hat.

What kind of songs would he sing?

One song that I remember very well was “Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer,” which is kind of a hillbilly song. I think I learned that song and played it a couple of times, but it never became a part of my working repertoire. He had a style like, he sounded a lot like Grandpa Jones. I thought I was in heaven [at the rodeo]. But living on $2 a day, you start to feel a little hungry, especially at the age of 15. I was eating pancakes every morning because the cook made these delicious pancakes. But these buckwheat pancakes were the only thing that was edible on the ranch. I couldn’t stand the beans and the other food, so I concentrated on eating between 11 and 15 pancakes for breakfast.

Did you parents understand any of this?

Oh, they were worried stiff. They didn’t know where I was. Then a letter arrived after I’d been there for almost three months, and my boss called me over and showed me this photograph, which was a very ugly picture of myself, and he said “Poncho! Is this your picture?” And I had to admit, that yes, that was me alright. He kind of smiled and said, “Write your folks a letter, they’re worried about you.” So I did. Later, I saw the cook and he said, “You might like being a cowboy, you know if you stay here you could become a good hand, and you might still like it, then again, you might not like it. But if you go back to school and get your high school diploma, you can do anything in the world you want to do, including cowboying.” Well, that made a lot of sense, so I decided to go back home. I got back, and I was fairly bored, medium miserable, once having tasted that sense of imaginary freedom. But I finished up high school and started playing cowboy songs on a guitar, and I’ve never been the same since.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up in New York?

When I was a kid I was very fond of New Orleans jazz. Boogie-woogie blues. There was a radio program on WOV in New York. Monday was Blues Monday where Fred Rollins would play nothing but blues, and he’d play a lot of New Orleans jazz on other nights. My favorite band was the Bunk Johnson band.

When I ran away at 15, I ran away with two other kids who were Bunk Johnson fans. Both of them poets, or would-be-poets. I lost track of them because we both were separated on two different trucks. He said he was going to Wilmington, North Carolina, and he only had room for one passenger, so I got in and I told them I’d wait for them when I got into Wilmington at the Greyhound bus station, and there we could all be reunited. Only later did I realize what a stupid plan that was. We didn’t have “teenagers” in 1947, the term was non-existent. I didn’t know I was a teenager. I was just 15. They hadn’t espoused the term yet. The world hadn’t yet known that teenagers were a real thing, and they were not to be trusted, and they couldn’t use their brains very well.

Anyways, it was an adventure, because we stopped in Wilmington, Delaware, and I was told we were going to Wilmington, North Carolina. I still haven’t seen Wilmington, North Carolina. I know a fellow who owns a bar there though. Anyway, we were coming up through Washington, D.C. and I saw an ad for J.E. Rodeo, and I thought that looked interesting. I think I had been reading something about the J.E. Rodeo in some cowboy literature. I made my way down there and got a job grooming horses for two dollars a day. They nicknamed me Poncho. Which was apparently an old rodeo clown that used to do some fantastic tricks.
When did you become more focused on playing music and collecting songs, rather than the truck driving and cowboying and that whole culture?

I’ve never been that interested in collecting music. I love the music of course, and I’ve had the chance to meet some of the greatest folk musicians that were alive in my time, like Woody Guthrie, and Big Bill Broonzy, and Pete Seeger, and a lot of old blues singers like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. I met Bill Broonzy in England. When I met him, I didn’t even know who he was. My English friends brought him over from the States and he was practically unknown in America. At that time, he was working as a janitor at a college in Chicago. They brought him back into the music life by coming over and playing in England and Paris. In Europe he became a big hit. He was one of the best blues singers and guitarists I ever met or heard, live or on record….

Well I did go on one collecting trip in 1953, and I wrote a song about it. I’ve only written about three songs, I’m not a songwriter, but I wrote “The 1912 Greens” about that trip to New Orleans, and meeting Billy Faier, the great banjo player who lived in New Orleans at the time. We were on this sort of music collecting expedition down South, traveling in a car.

You know so many songs though…

I guess I know a few. Two famous singers, and one cattle rancher, old friends of mine, recently come to me and asked me to write some cowboy songs. I thought, “Sure!” This is an honor, I love cowboy songs, and I consider myself a cowboy singer, and I met some of the best cowboy singers around. But I don’t know how to write. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Before I wanted to be a cowboy, I always imagined myself as an author. I used to have this imaginary picture of myself as a grown up, wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe, sitting at the typewriter. “The author,” that was me. Now I’ve got three typewriters, and I have a pipe, but I gave up smoking about 40 years ago, and I’m glad of it. Tobacco, I mean. But boy, writing is hard. I can’t think of the first words, I can’t think of the tune, melody or anything. I have no idea how to begin. Wish me luck. Please.

Definitely, I’ll send you some tips. But why is writing so hard for you?

It’s a matter of discipline, probably. If I had the right situation, you know, like a quiet place, I live in a very noisy area here. My sweetheart would make me a cup of coffee and then say, “Write me one page on your typewriter, slip it under my door, and I’ll give you a cup of coffee.” Or maybe they could just point a gun at me and say, “Write, goddamnit!” It might be the house I’m in now. I don’t know. We’ve got a lot of Harley Davidson motorcycles coming by, it’s noisy here.

Sounds like you live in a pretty tough part of Marin.


You learned most of the folk songs you know from other folk performers?

Uhh, no, I think a lot of them I learned off of records, others from books, folk song collection books. Carl Sandburg did one. I think it was called “The Fireside Book of Folk Songs.”

Did you ever meet Peter La Farge?

Peter La Farge was my best friend.

That’s great because he’s so forgotten about and underrated.

I met Peter at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo when I was trying to learn how to ride bucking horses in 1949, and he was entered in the wild horse race and he was the only cowboy in the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association that owned an MG. That’s an English sports car. An MG TC, with wire wheels. We got in the MG, with Colorado plates, and drove down to Greenwich Village. Pete introduced me to his friend Josh White [blues singer]. Later we saw him play at the Circle in the Square, a little place in the Village, on a street that’s now named after Dave Van Ronk.

Is that weird seeing a street in New York City named after someone who was your friend in the folk music scene?

R: Yeah! I was very fond of Dave. He was a rough, tough kid from Queens, and I was a kind of a softy from Brooklyn, although I admired tough people and hung out with them. I’ve been around cowboys and truck drivers all my life. He’d been in the Merchant Marines and sailed to Holland and back. I always wanted to be a sailor. I was thinking about joining the Boy Scouts at this time, but they seemed like a bunch of sissies to me. I went to a few meetings and then got bored with it. Then I discovered the Sea Scouts, and that was more to my liking, but they didn’t have a boat as far as I could tell, they just met in a church in Brooklyn. Then I discovered the Junior Blue Jackets of America, more my style. They gave their marching orders with a southern accent. I thought, “Wow! Snappy! Cool.”

Speaking of historical things, the country seems to be going through a lot of shit recently…

It certainly is! I’ve noticed that.

As someone who’s seen, and done a lot of important historical things, do you have any advice for us?

I think Sanders is the man. He’s the only guy who shows that he really cares. But I listened to Woody [Guthrie] rant and rave about politicians for years, and I share his opinions pretty well, so I never listened to politics that much, which is a shame, but I’d vote for Sanders.

He reminds me a little bit of yourself.

Oh, I never figured him for a cowboy, but he’s definitely a person that cares about people a lot.

You’re playing a show at St. Cyprian’s Church in San Francisco on March 19. What’s touring and playing shows like at your age now?

Well, pretty much like they always were. I never have a set list, unless it’s some big scary place, then I might jot down some better songs to remember to do them. But I usually just work the room, you kind of just feel what they might want to hear. Sometimes people shout out requests too, but that makes me nervous. I don’t usually like to do requests, and usually the songs they’re requesting are ones I’m very tired of doing. Like “The Tennessee Stud,” I can’t do that song at all anymore. It got real popular, I kind of wish it didn’t.

The worst show I ever did in my life was in Newport, Rhode Island in 1969. Just as I was about to set foot on the stage, a man was about to set foot on the moon. The nerve! They could have chosen some other time. There were 18,000 people in the audience who paid big money to see the Newport Folk Festival. Johnny Cash was there, Kris Kristofferson was there, I believe it was their first time at Newport. Also, Pearl, Janis Joplin was there. It was her first time, as well. It was my fourth time there.

They were announcing me, and I’m watching the moon landing on TV, and the promoter is to my right, beckoning me to go one stage saying, “Jack, this is Newport.” So I memorized the speed that the guy [Neil Armstrong] was coming down the ladder. There were ten rungs of the ladder, and I was about 50 feet from the microphone, so I divided the distance, 50 feet into 10 equal spaces of 5 feet. I took some long, slow strides. I arrived to the microphone on the stage at the same time as he [Neil Armstrong] got off the ladder on the moon. I pointed to the moon, and it was big and full, and slowly pronounced the words, shading my eyes for drama, pointing at the moon, “He’s just stepping on the mooooonnn now!” Well that got a big laugh. So the show got off to a good start. I started off with my favorite song “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Have you ever seen one of my shows?

Not yet, no

Well, they tell me it’s something to remember. I’ve got people stopping me one the streets telling me about shows of mine they saw years ago. And they’ll tell me what I said, what I did and stuff. They still remember the shows from 10 or 15 years ago. I like to think my shows are getting better.

What are your favorite songs to play?

I like to play Bob Dylan songs. Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” is the one I would always open with, because I don’t have to warm up and by the time I’m done singing that song I’m warmed up! I tell people I’m not a musician. I use to tell people I’m not a music lover, I love trucks, and horses and cows, dogs and cats, music is what pays for the diesel and the cat food, but I always like to give the people their money's worth. I’m an entertainer. I may not be a musician, but I’m a damn good entertainer.  

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