Jack’s life has been constructed in the vernaculars of carnival hucksters, cowboys, truck drivers, square-rigged sailors, merchant mariners, road bums and minstrels like himself. Not that you need a translator. The message is seldom in the words.
It’s more about the aura and the rake of the hat brim and the way the iconic Martin D-28 guitar slouches over his shoulder. There could also be a rodeo belt buckle and a buckaroo kerchief and a wrinkled grin that might or might not be a smile. It’s an unfiltered landscape.
Back in the day, he wore his next destination like Clint Eastwood wore that bulletproof poncho. The sense was of impending departure. To Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, "be here now" meant to try not to "astral project" while there was still beer in the pitcher or a tale to tell.
It’s not that the yarns he spun weren’t true they were just unbelievable. He had caught the tail of that Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac comet and, as far as can be determined, hasn’t returned to Earth much since except to refuel.
This week will find the legendary troubadour making just such a stop over Heber way. He’ll be hookin’ up with a few of his old night-herdin’ cowpoke pardners at the "Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair" for a bit of pickin’ and grinnin’ and wry word wranglin’.
Ever since Jack first stumbled upon the annual gathering in Elko some years back, he has showered the faithful with his own brand of quite quaint oral history both in song and the spoken word. In fact there are times it is somewhat difficult to separate the two.
Jack has been known to keep that ever-so-fine finger-picking and flat-picking going on the ol’ dreadnaught even while his grip loosens on the train of thought he has been attempting to embellish musically. Of course that’s the most endearing part of his shtick.
Folksinger Odetta’s mother caught on to that trait when she stuck the moniker "Ramblin’" on him back during one of the Eisenhower administrations. Not that maintaining the thread of discourse is of high import on these particular trail drives. When you’re along on one of Jack’s rambles, it’s all about the journey.
Most of ’em he doesn’t write himself. It’s as an interpreter of other’s work that he is most renowned. Jack channels Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Merle Travis, the Carter Family, Jesse Fuller, Jimmy Driftwood, Tim Hardin, and Bob Dylan with the best of ’em.
His original pieces, as few in number as they are, are epics, however. "912 Greens" and "Cup of Coffee" can each ramble on for a month or more. They are open ended, as it were, and not subject to organizational discipline of any kind. In the room women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Actually, T. S. Eliot said that. No relation.
This is not Jack’s first Utah rodeo by any stretch. During the latter half of the early ’70s he spent a spell bonding with the locals while he held forth in a herd of Park City saloons most notably "The Handlebar" and the "Utah Coal and Lumber." The fact neither survived, however, should not be laid at his door. Pure coincidence!
Then came the tour of western ski towns he made with John Prine a few years later. If a couple of hundred fans had been released early for bad behavior, you could have called it a "packed house." Without such foresight, however, the Egyptian Theater burst at the seams. My reward for picking them up at the airport became a seat in the aisle. Good though!
The last time a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sighting took place hereabouts had to have probably been when his daughter Aiyana premiered her film, "The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack," at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2000.
Although Aiyana walked off with a Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement, Jack left with a chance to rebuild a family. Actually they headed off into the sunset together that year on their way to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. He wanted to show off his daughter the same way she had shown off her dad at Sundance.
The individual sets at these "shows" at Wasatch High School this weekend will be a lot shorter than when one sees the various artists in a concert setting, but having Jack actually come to Heber is an off-scale treat.
A bunch of us L. A. expatriates who once caught his act at such famous folk-and-blues venues as the "Ash Grove" and the "Golden Bear" will be banding together Friday evening to witness, yet one more time, some of the most organic acoustic guitar pickin’ to ever come down the pike. Not to mention that authentic-as-the-whistle-of-a-freight-train voice.
No doubt about it, Jack is the real deal. Not that he never rode into town on a horse named "Hyperbole." Or that it’s ever been beyond him to exaggerate to make a point. But that’s very much a part of his and our oral tradition. Ramblin’ Jack embodies much of what remains of value within our cultural savings account.
The fact that it’s the back roads of the metaphysical life force that most recharges a top-shelf folk artist like Jack shouldn’t come as any surprise. Save for when he’s at the wheel of a Kenworth or Peterbilt, he’d rather stay off the beaten path. More than likely, there is still a detour or two he hasn’t taken out there somewhere. No doubt he’ll get to them in time.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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