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A Daughter Tries to Know 'Jack'

By Stephen Hunter
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)
You can tell by his outfit that he is a cowboy, but the issue of "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" turns out to be whether the great old folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott is a father.

This curious documentary is something rare, evincing opposites: It's both delightful and powerful. That's because it's a first: A daughter–Aiyana Elliott–chronicles her father's eventually famous life (and the hard traveling that got him there, and the great singers he knew and influenced) but also her own bitter feelings about a man thousands knew better than she did.

It's a movie in which text and subtext invert as it progresses. It starts, well and conventionally, as the life story of the Brooklyn-born Elliot Adnopoz, a doctor's son who at an early age (when his peers were playing stickball, drinking egg creams and following the Dodgers) lay awake in his room, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, dreaming.

He left home at 15, joined the rodeo (in Washington, D.C.!), groomed horses and learned to play the guitar from a clown. In 1950 he heard Woody Guthrie on the radio and his life's course was set. He met and eventually moved in with Guthrie's family, and picked up from him that specific American sound that Guthrie perfected while hoboing in the 1930s through the Dust Bowl–professionally unprofessional, seemingly unschooled, eerily high and reedy yet pulsing with authenticity, no matter how fake. Later, of course, Ramblin' Jack passed it on to one of his disciples, a Minnesota kid named Bobby Zimmerman. (Arlo Guthrie: "There wouldn't be no Bob Dylan without Jack Elliott.")

And he seemed to be at the epicenter of musical culture no matter where he went. After his apprenticeship with Guthrie, he drifted to England, where his easy stylings influenced the blues-loving generation that was about to take world music by storm. Then he floated back to the United States for the height of the folk music revival. He caught on big-time when country music took center stage, where a friendship with Johnny Cash got him national exposure (and a great TV duet, which his daughter includes in the film.)

But Ramblin' Jack's career was less a trajectory than the random bounces of a pinball. He seemed to lack concentration and ambition, what the less charitable would call professionalism. His stage manner reflected his life: charming, unfocused, free-form, improvisational, easily distracted, utterly original and wonderfully entertaining.

And the nickname was no stage affectation. He was a ramblin' kind of guy. He couldn't stay anywhere. Handsome, with chiseled cheekbones, great hair, he looked good in a Stetson and tight jeans, and the cigarette dangling from his lips gave him that certain something that made him irresistible to women (wives: four; girlfriends: too numerous to count).

His daughter doesn't flinch from throwing hard questions at the people who knew her father best: a manager who throws up his hands at his ex-client's lack of organization; ex-wives who loved Jack but admit he was completely unreliable; and Kris Kristofferson, who tells a hilarious story about how long it took the Rambler to get his damned guitar tuned onstage in front of thousands of people. She even asks her own mother, Ex-Wife No. 3, if Jack had any talent as a father. Her mother gropes for words, and comes up empty.

But as the film progresses, it becomes less interested in the singer and more interested in the father. Her relationship with him is affectionate, but she can't forget that he wasn't there, and she can't forget the breakup of the marriage. She wants an accounting, an explanation. She accepts him as the man he is, but she wants (why do I think all women want this?) to Talk About It. It's strange to see a movie in which a daughter presses her father (which is a director pressing her subject) and he responds with evasions, discomfort, interruption, irritation and almost rudeness.

In the end, "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" is less about music than the inevitable, lingering melancholy of a fractured family. It's a quest for Daddy. And Daddy, so sadly and yet so predictably, disappoints.



© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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