July 3, 2008

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He’s a ramblin’ man
Taught by Woody, played with Dylan, inspired Mick Jagger
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was waiting for a train in England with his first wife in the 1950s. Across the platform was a group of students. The train was late, Elliott he recalls, so he pulled out his guitar and played cowboy folk songs extra loud so the students could hear.

The next day, one of those students went out and bought a guitar. It was Mick Jagger.

“He blames me for [his] being a musician,” Elliott said.

The day after he returned from Europe in 1961, he went to visit Woody Guthrie, who was then in the later stages of the Huntington’s disease that would eventually kill him in 1967. Guthrie served as a mentor to Elliott when the two first met 10 years earlier, Elliot, 19, Guthrie at 39. The two played together then. When he arrived at the room at Brooklyn State Hospital, he met Bob Dylan for the first time, who was visiting Guthrie as well.

Those are just a couple of the stories that Elliott might or might not tell when he plays at the Stone Church in Newmarket this Friday, July 5. At 76, he’s still recording music, though it’s rarely his own.

“I don’t write songs. I’ve written about six songs in 40 years,” he said. “I’ve never learned how to sit down and write. It’s a discipline problem. I love driving trucks, I love working on wooden boats. I never learned to enjoy sitting down at a typewriter and writing.”

But he sings other people’s songs. He estimates he knows about 300, but it’s just a guess. Right now he’s learning new songs for an upcoming blues album on the ANTI- record label he’s on now. But it takes him a while.

“I don’t learn songs fast. I haven’t learned any new songs at all for the past 10 years,” he said. “It’s kind of scary.”

His most recent album, I Stand Alone, produced by his daughter, was released in 2006.

Elliott grew up in New York City under the name Elliott Charles Adnopoz. He read novels by the cowboy writer Will James. “I had romantic dreams about traveling. Dreams about sailing and cowboy life,” he said. In his teens, he ran away to become a cowboy, staying at a rodeo ranch. His parents put an ad on the missing person’s bureau. “It was stupid thing not to realize that my parents would worry about me,” he said. His relationship with his folks was never great, hence his running away to begin with.

He’s usually not nervous when he plays music. “My greatest fear is falling asleep on stage. I told that to Kris Kristofferson,” he said. The two were at the South by Southwest Music Festival and Kristofferson told Elliot he was nervous. “He laughed and he put on a really good show,” he said.

Elliott’s only fallen asleep once on stage.

“It was about 20 years ago at the Cellar Door in [Washington,] D.C. I was driving a long way from Colorado,” he said. “I fell asleep in the middle of the song. When I woke, the guitar was still going. I sang one verse, slept through the second and sang the third. It was witnessed by a young kid named Marty Stuart.”

Marty Stuart, once married to Johnny Cash’s daughter, is a country artist. A few years back, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Stuart introduced Elliott. “He told that story, and then I did my song and then I introduced Arlo Guthrie.”

Elliott, who has his home base off the coast north of San Francisco, will stop at Guthrie’s house for his yearly visit in Guthrie’s Massachusetts home before his Stone Church performance. They’ll probably trade some stories and he’ll be fresh with new ones for the concert..