I'm looking at a picture of Ramblin' Jack Elliott . He is sitting on a bench, in a park near London, trademark cowboy hat sitting squarely on his head, tuning his guitar while looking nonchalantly at the camera. The time is early Fall 1955.
He's my first cousin who I haven't see since 1957 when I was 12.
He hangs with Arlo, Derroll Adams, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Johnnie Cash... inspiration for Clapton, Jagger, Red Hot Chili Peppers, affectionately know in Greenwich Village as to as Bob Dylan's father.
Now I'm 64, sitting across from the legend himself. What do I say?
I went to California this summer to reconnect with long-lost family. Now I find myself sitting across from the real Ramblin' Jack. We're sitting in the crowded living room of a modest cottage near the Pacific. Shelves bursting with models of sailing vessels, horses, photos of Woody and Arlo, Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Dylan, Jagger, Johnny Cash, a Grammy and a dusty display case exhibiting all the standard nautical rope knots. It's late summer 2009.
Vikki Lee, Jack’s better half, is making tea while we boys chat. Trademark cowboy hat sitting squarely on his head, Jack picks up his guitar and strums a few chords before stopping abruptly to relate a story that popped into his head.
Everybody knows when an idea pops into Jack's head, he will stop mid-song to expound eloquently and usually at great length on an amazing range of topics, liberally peppered with references to colorful people, places and events. You never know where the road will lead. The public thinks his moniker derives from his reputation as a constant world traveler. Not true. Jack received his nickname from Odetta's mother who laughing commented that Jack had a never-ending supply of stories to ramble on about. I don't think Jack ever forgot a single person, place, event or story involving the enormous cast of characters that have crossed his path.
But I hadn't seen Jack since 1957 when I was 12. And now I'm 64, sitting across from the legend; the man who carries on Woody Guthrie's legacy. We're chatting about an old cigarette commercial for Phillip Morris. Suddenly we are competing to outdo each other with imitations of the cry, "Call for Phillip Mor-eee-usss!". Jack sings and I ask if I can tape him. FYI. Jack hates photographs during his performances. But being that I'm his long-lost cousin and we're in his living room instead of a public venue, he agrees. Jack and Vikki start a beautiful duet, I whip out my phone. They're singing while I'm doing my Martin-Scorsese-with-a-Blackberry impression. I back into the wall, knocking loose a picture frame of old bottle corks which crashes to the floor, destroying the beauty of the moment.
Jack and I reminiscing about Johnny Roventinti, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall
We stare at each other. Then it occurs to me that I don't know this man. Nor does he know me. We share genetic features, having similar faces and frames. We both sport white hair. But he’s Rambling Jack, an American legend. And I’m his cousin. So who is this stranger sitting across from me? I remove my phone's battery, toss it onto the couch, and pull my chair up so closely that our knees touch. "I listening now Jack. Let's talk." He smiled, though not with his usual cowboy smile when he's performing. This was his sailor smile that lights up his face when he's at one with the Sea.
We talked for hours until Vikki broke us up for the night. The next morning, I left feeling happy and somehow satisfied. While there will always be a 50 year gap in our shared history, we connected as people ... and as family starting noe. And that's ok by me.
So tonight, when I watch the Grammy Awards, will I be watching the famous Rambin' Jack Elliott or will I see my cousin Elliott, humbly accepting an award for Best Traditional Country Album? Perhaps a bit of both. Remember cousin, while nobody should be defined by his or her public image, you can be proud of yours. Historian, balladeer, bearer of the torch. You're stuck with it. Serendipity? Perhaps. But this our only time and place.. Good luck tonight.
"Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"
Rambling Jack Elliott is an American icon. Since the 1950's, he has spent his life touring the United States and Europe singing, performing with the other legends of Western, Country , Blues and Appalachian musical heritage..... and relating stories of the open road... in his usual "rambling" style. Jack lived with the Guthrie family for a spell, learning and thus inheriting Woody's songs and stories in the two years before Woody's life was ended prematurely by Huntington's Chorea.
Elliott's first recording in many years, South Coast, earned him his first Grammy Award in 1995 - his second in 2011. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998 and is the subject of the movie "The Ballad Of Rambling Jack".
"Long before every kid in America wanted to play guitar-before Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin-Ramblin' Jack had picked it up and was passing it along. From Johnny Cash to Tom Waits, Beck to Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder to Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead to The Rolling Stones, they all pay homage to Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
In the tradition of roving troubadours Jack has carried the seeds and pollens of story and song for decades from one place to another, from one generation to the next."
Quote courtesy of IMTFOLK
Folk music and civil-rights icon Pete Seeger brought his brand of straight-talking this-banjo-kills-fascists* political activism to "The Johnny Cash Show" on March 4, 1970
Dave Van Ronk - He Was A Friend Of Mine
Johnny Cash - So Doggone Lonesome (1955). - Johnny's 1st TV Show on The Grand Ol' Opry
Odetta - From The Woods Sings Old Time Radio Hour
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts on the early days of the Rolling Stones. Interview filmed in 1989 as part of the documentary 25X5: The Continuing Adventures Of The Rolling Stones.
Bob Dylan's first TV appearance in 1963 singing "Man of Constant Sorrow" a traditional American folk song first recorded by Dick Burnett, a partially blind fiddler from Kentucky
Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge : Me And Bobby McGee (1978)
Arlo Guthrie with Pete Seeger - Amazing Grace