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A Ramblin' Ode to Ramblin' Jack

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000


    'The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack' Ramblin' Jack Elliott, shown playing with Derroll Adams, is the subject of a documentary directed by Elliott's daughter. (Lot 47 Films)
Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the original Brooklyn Cowboy, was born Elliott Adnopoz, No. 1 son of a Jewish doctor and teacher. But he had cowboys on his mind early on and at 14, ran away to join a rodeo, where he learned how to flat pick and yodel. Brought home, the youngster eventually found a surrogate father-and a rambling model-more to his liking in Woody Guthrie, whom he first heard on the radio and tracked down in his nearby Coney Island home. Ramblin' Jack Elliott (he adopted the name as soon as it was legally possible) befriended the legendary Oklahoma troubadour, becoming his constant companion and living in the Guthrie home as Woody began his long, painful degeneration from a neurological disorder. But first, the two traveled around the country, with Guthrie teaching Elliott everything he knew about folk music and songwriting. In fact, Elliott so closely aligned himself with Guthrie's narrative style and sound that the elder singer once said "Jack sounds more like me than I do myself."

By then, Elliott had pretty much shed his Adnopoz roots, reinventing himself as a cowboy singer and storyteller, complete with a soft down-home drawl that was equal parts influence and imagination. The story of Elliott's five-decade career, in which he was influential but never commercially successful, is told in "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," a Sundance winning documentary directed by his daughter, Aiyana Elliott.

The film makes a compelling case for Elliott as a crucial bridge between Guthrie and another young Jewish songwriter who transformed himself from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan (they met at Woody's bedside). The young Dylan, once a self-described "Guthrie jukebox" and Elliott acolyte, was billed early on as "the son of Jack Elliott," but eventually found his own, original voice. Elliott never did, which is why he remains a fascinating but marginal figure in the folk revival, one whose latter-day rewards (a folk Grammy in 1996, a 1998 National Medal of Arts) are as much testimony to longevity as to enduring achievement. "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" is about another bridge, as well: the one that was never built between father and daughter. Jack Elliott, now 69, comes across as a likable but irresponsible rambler, with four failed marriages as testimony. Aiyana, 32, a New York University film grad making her directorial debut, clearly saw the film as an opportunity to connect with her father in a manner never available to her growing up. Unfortunately, Jack doesn't seem particularly interested in revealing himself at this late stage. He parries Aiyana's questions, alternately annoyed, evasive, distant. Aiyana never really succeeds in locating the man behind the mask; when she complains that she feels she's never had "an actual conversation" with her father, Arlo Guthrie warns that she probably never will.

Aiyana Elliott does uncover loads of archival footage, with new performance segments and interviews with compatriots like Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Guthrie, Odetta and Kris Kristofferson, who suggests Elliott got his nickname not for his travels, but "for the way he talks." The film-which at 112 minutes, ends up ramblin' like its subject-does provide compelling rehab for an underrated artist. That a similar result eluded father and daughter makes "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" all the more poignant.

THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK (NR; 105 minutes) – Contains nothing objectionable. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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