By Buddy Blue Old-time folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliot acquired his nickname from a propensity to meander verbally
rather than, as one might suppose, from his employment as a troubadour. Legend has it that the mother of fellow folkie Odetta coined the title; Elliot lived up to the "Ramblin'" handle when I inquired whether this tale was apocryphal.
"It's true," he said. "See, I went to visit her. I went to see Odetta one day when she was about 19 years old. I wasn't much more'n the same age as her, just starting out. Woody brought me out to L.A. with him in a car. We were in a Model A Ford. There was a guy across the street from her that had a car too, it was a..."
At this point, Elliot's explanation was mercifully interrupted by his call waiting; I didn't ask him to complete the saga once he returned to the line. Suffice it to say, most of Elliot's quotes herein are truncated, but expect many a monologue when he appears Sunday night at Normal Heights United Methodist Church; the latest installment of the Acoustic Music San Diego series.
Inevitably, Elliot's soliloquies lead back to the aforementioned, iconic Woody Guthrie, the most renowned folksinger in history and an early mentor to Elliot. A few years after hitting the traveling rodeo circuit as a teen-ager, the Brooklyn-born Elliott Charles Adnopoz, son of a Jewish doctor, hooked up and journeyed with Guthrie throughout the early '50s.
"My parents brought me to the rodeo when I was little," related Elliot, 74. "I never got over it and they always regretted it."
Despite protestations from his father to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, Elliot remained at Guthrie's side until he was hospitalized with Huntington's Chorea in 1954. To this day, he obviously reveres the man.
"Woody was like a cross between Jesus and Will Rogers and Mother Maybelle Carter. Hmmm...I never thought of that one before until just now," Elliot mused.
"Woody's influence on me was very profound," he continued. "I went around trying to sing and play guitar like him, and I did a pretty good imitation, so they tell me. Woody himself said, 'Jack sounds more like me than I do.' Woody had a lighthearted personality. He had kind of a simple country humor and he had a marvelous sense of words, being the great poet that he was. There was sort of an operatic sadness in his songs, although he described it in a lighthearted way, leaving it up to the listener to feel the emotions."
Out from under his ailing guru's wing, Elliot went on to become a celebrated, influential folksinger in his own right. In 1961, he visited Guthrie for the last time in his hospital room, where he met another young folkie named Bob Dylan. They became close friends for a spell, but eventually drifted apart.
"I think I had quite an impact on him," Elliot said. "He went around imitating me and I learned some things from Dylan, too. I copied a little bit of his style."
In 1999, the last time I interviewed Elliot, he'd bemoaned that Dylan never acknowledged his impact. So surely he was heartened by the recent release of Dylan's autobio, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," in which Dylan not only extends Elliot his propers, but admits he was so intimidated by the older man's expertise upon first encounter that he considered quitting folksinging, fearing he could never live up to Elliot's talents?
"Yeah, I read that and I wrote him a thank you note" Elliot said. "I'm feeling better about him. I thought it was a wonderful book and he said a lot of nice things about everybody in it, all the musicians."
Between 1967 and 1994, Elliot never stepped foot into a recording studio, but his 1995 comeback album, "South Coast," netted a Grammy, and his last two albums - 1998's "Friends Of Mine" and 1999's "Long Ride," were also critical faves.
There've been no new albums since then, as Elliot prefers traveling the globe and playing concerts to working within what he called the "humiliating competitive environment" of the record label domain. He expects to release a new CD sometime this year, but don't look for a batch of original songs -- Elliot views himself as a folksinger in the classic sense; an interpreter, traditionalist, historian and yarn-spinner as opposed to a tunesmith.
"I've just been singin' the same old stuff," he said. "I don't consider myself a songwriter, I've written something like four songs in the last 40 years. That's okay though. Folks still seem to like the few I wrote."
Ramblin' Jack Elliot, May 15 at Normal Heights United Methodist Church, 4650 Mansfield Street in San Diego, 7:30 p.m., $18 - $22, (619) 303-8176.
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
Okay, so there's these people who believe themselves to be "musicians" or "performers" or "artists" or something, and they call themselves "DJ" this-that-or-the-other, inevitably followed by some really annoying, retarded-sounded stage name, usually grossly and deliberately misspelled, as they apparently suppose this provides them a level of street cred or bling or bubble or butter or whatever they call it this week, and as if, by extension, they adjudge illiteracy and stupidity to be among the most commendable traits one could possibly bestow upon themselves.
What these people do is, they stand around making painstakingly unpleasant, nerve-wracking, electronically-generated noises not unlike a couple of Toyotas side-swiping one another at 70 miles per hour; this is, apparently, their chosen mode of creative self-expression. Hey, you know, it sure must beat the hell out of something so mundane and time-consuming as actually learning how to sing or write or play a real live musical instrument.
Ill content to merely torment the populace with their excruciating clamor, these people further affect obviously well-rehearsed but purportedly spontaneous twitching, flailing, convulsing, flapping bodily movements, while adopting facial expressions akin to some unfortunate soul painfully and unsuccessfully attempting to eliminate the contents of their bowels throughout the course of a "performance," as if impulsively lost in the heavy, soul-rending process of generating their "art." This they generally undertake whilst adorned in full trendy regalia -- puffy, over-sized, ill-fitting clothing, frequently with their underthings self-consciously pulled up and over shuddering buttocks for public consumption, as if forcing the consideration of their personal stinkiness upon the masses were the ultimate fashion proclamation.
When I die and go to Hell, I expect to endure an eternity of these "DJ"'s presentations, while being force-fed pickled beets and low carbohydrate beer, and to further be obliged to learn and engage in their absurd, elaborate hand-greeting rituals at the conclusion of each recital.
To prepare myself for this ill-fated eventuality and to determine how well I might deal, I could attend the P.B. Block Party on Saturday, where an entire "electronica" stage shall be devoted to DJs and their muse. However, coward that I am, I shall instead partake of the many other real, live performers who make real- live music - how quaint! -- highlights of which include Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Roomful Of Blues, the Wild Truth and Berkley-Hart.
Just keepin' it real, yo.
One-man-rockabilly-band Hasil Adkins, in own singular manner a man as real as real ever got, died at his home in Madison, Wisconsin at age 66. Outrageous, wholly unique and perhaps a bit addled, legend has it that Adkins sang, played guitar and pedal drums all at once because he never quite grasped the concept that the music he heard on the radio as a child (one most likely afflicted with undiagnosed hyperactive ADD) was being performed by more than one musician at a time. While technically not a particularly good instrumentalist by any stretch of the imagination, from the '50s until the day he died, Adkins' music was infused with a lunatic energy, inimitable delivery, manic humor and demented lyrical conceit that made him among rock & roll's most surreal and distinctive stylists. Adkins sang of dance crazes he made up, girlfriends he didn't really have, and seemed enthralled by the twin concepts eating chicken and of decapitation -- writing no less than three different songs on that particular subject. His voice was the howl of an ill wind under a full moon; his guitar sound a primal, distorted crunch; his drum meter erratic but somehow seamlessly complimentary of his raw, rude and very amusing vibe. Unsophisticated? You betchum. But Adkins was as untamed, passionate and inspired a rocker as the world has even known, a man who made the most of what precious few gifts he was given, and to that end, he personified the wonderfully obdurate nature of the human spirit. Plus, he flat-out rawked. I shall miss him.