Although not nearly as well-known as Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger -- to say nothing of Bob Dylan -- Ramblin' Jack Elliott was a key figure in the American folk movement of the 1950s and '60s. Unlike his more celebrated contemporaries, Elliott wrote relatively few songs himself but was a great interpreter of other's people's music, and he was one of the best flat-picking guitar players on the scene. A handsome guy with a mop of curly brown hair, a sexy smile and a devil-may-care attitude, he lived the vagabond's life, traveling across rural America like his hero Woody Guthrie, living among the migrant workers, coal miners and laborers, singing and collecting songs. And just as Guthrie served as inspiration and mentor to the younger man, Elliott himself was instrumental in the life and career of Bob Dylan. "Without Jack Elliott, there wouldn't be any Bob Dylan," declares Arlo Guthrie flatly.
But The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack is more than a worthy tribute to an influential musician. As conceived and directed by the singer's daughter Aiyana, this documentary film is as much an expression of disappointment and longing as of love. As many children of talented parents can attest, great artists do not necessarily make great fathers. Elliott seemed to be conspicuously lacking in parenting skills, and the film is a bittersweet effort by his daughter to get close to a man who had a talent for making strangers feel like family -- but who kept his real family at arm's length.
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Aiyana shot the film while accompanying her father on a cross-country tour in the late 1990s. In addition to shooting the concert footage, she conducted interviews with friends and fellow artists (including Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk) who give remarkably candid assessments of the man. The film's real jewel, however, is the extraordinary archival material it contains: clips from Ramblin' Jack's television appearances, footage of him on tour and at play with both Guthrie (father and son, at different times) and Dylan, and most amazing of all, home movies of Elliott as a child back in the 1930s.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is Elliott's background. Hailed as an authentic country voice and assumed by everyone to be a "real cowboy" who grew up in the West -- or, at least, the Midwest -- Ramblin' Jack actually was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a middle-class Jewish doctor and his schoolteacher wife. From an early age, Elliott Charles Adnopoz was enraptured by all things Western. He ran away from home at the age of 16 to join a traveling rodeo, which is where he learned to play the guitar.
The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack
More interested in adventure than commercial success, Elliott never achieved the status of the better-known folkies. Several frustrating experiences with recording companies soured him to even making records, and without the exposure afforded by phonograph sales, his popularity, while devoted, always remained small.
In fact, staying in one place long enough to even make a record seemed almost beyond Elliott's capabilities. The roving spirit never left him, which is one reason he proved such an unreliable husband and father (Aiyana was the product of Elliott's fourth marriage). His daughter's longing for a closer relationship is painfully obvious throughout the movie, but instead of breaking the flow or diluting the film's power, it gives the film added poignancy. What emerges from this labor of love is a portrait of a genial raconteur, a talented musician and a true free-spirit -- but also that of an irresponsible, self-absorbed man more comfortable with total strangers than with those who by all rights should have been closest to him.