Folk pioneer Jack Elliott will ramble into town
Ryan Summerlin August 16, 2013
Folk troubadour and pioneer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott originally wanted to be called Ramblin’ Buck Elliott, but someone called him Jack instead.
"I was too embarrassed to correct him, and the name stuck," Elliott said during a telephone interview with The Park Record from his home in Marin County, Calif. "It was one of those things that happened to me in life that I didn’t bother changing."
Elliott will perform his brand of finger-picking and storytelling when he plays at the Egyptian Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 22. Tickets are available by visiting www.parkcityshows.com .
Elliott’s life is full of exciting experiences that started back when he lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a surgeon and the family expected Elliott to follow that path.
"I wasn’t supposed to be a guitar player," Elliott said. "I was supposed to be a doctor like my daddy, but I couldn’t have hoped to live up to his standards. I also had no interest in medicine or any other smelly stuff — although I did like horse manure."
Although Elliott grew up in the city, he learned about horses because his father grew up on a farm in Connecticut.
"I would visit my grandpa’s farm with daddy and my grandpa had some cattle," Elliott said. "I remember getting run out of a pasture with my daddy by a bull up there."
The country life called to Elliott, and when he was 15, he got fed up with his family’s expectations and took off on his own adventure.
"I ended up running away from home, much to my parents’ chagrin, and traveled south," he said. "I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I knew I wanted to get away from the city.
"I guess I really was a teenager, even though I wouldn’t admit it," Elliott said. "Only when I was older did I realize that running away was such a dirty trick that I played on my parents."
During that excursion, Elliott hitched a ride and noticed a sign that advertised the J.E. Ranch Rodeo in Washington, D.C.
"I knew about that because the rodeo would come to Madison Square Garden in New York," he said. "I loved cowboy life and read a lot of Will James books that were cowboy books based on his own life.
"So, I joined the rodeo and I managed to have some more adventures," Elliott said. "When I was with the rodeo, there was a rodeo clown named Bramer Rogers who played the banjo and guitar very nicely. He would entertain us rodeo hands up in the stands between the shows and sing cowboy and old hillbilly songs."
That’s when Elliott fell in love with that style of music.
"You know, my mother played piano a little bit and she would play classical pieces," he said. "I also had an aunt who was a very fine pianist who taught several students who became concert pianists.
"But I didn’t like classical music very much, although I enjoyed some of that Mozart and some Beethoven," Elliott said. "I would listen to the radio and one of my favorite radio programs was hosted by a fellow named Fred Robbins on WOV that was broadcast on dial 1280 out of New York City. But I really liked what I heard when I was with the rodeo."
Elliott eventually returned home and made amends with his family.
"They were loving parents and took me back in spite of the grief that I caused them," he said. "I told them I would finish up high school if they fed me."
Although he was back in New York, the folk music stayed in his heart and he hooked up with some bluegrass musicians who played around Washington Square Park on Sundays. "There were some great pickers who came from all over the United States to play there," Elliott said. "They had a license to gather and play legally, at first from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., and slowly the hours got shorter and shorter and the musicians would have little wars with the police."
That’s when he met Woody Guthrie.
"Woody lived in a tiny apartment near Coney Island and I called him up," Elliott said. "He was so friendly and invited me over, but said, ‘Don’t come today. I have a belly ache.’
"It turned out that he had a severe case of appendicitis, and I ended up visiting him in the hospital a couple of times," Elliott said.
That friendship helped Elliott with his own music that has now spanned more than 60 years and 40 albums.
On Aug. 1, Elliott celebrated his 82nd birthday while performing at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island with Beck.
But Elliott doesn’t favor being called an 82-year-old.
"I was in Newport two years ago and it was supposed to be my 80th birthday," he said. "When I looked at the cake and saw the number 80, I said, ‘I’m not going there. So I put my left foot down and double clutched and put my life in reverse. So, when people ask, I tell them I turned 78 last week, instead of 82."
Throughout the years, Elliott has performed with many of his heroes and friends including Guthrie, Beck and the late Johnny Cash, to name a few.
"I like music and it’s been good to me," Elliott said. "Through it, I have met a lot of my favorite musicians, and I feel young and fresh.
"I love going and playing and then leaving, he said. "I feel like a bank robber, and I’m looking forward to coming to Park City."
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., will present Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on Thursday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $23 to $38 and available by visiting www.parkcityshows.com .