This is the story of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, born Elliot Charles Adnopoz on Aug. 1, 1931, the son of a Jewish physician in Brooklyn. Young Elliott’s first ambition was to be a cowboy and so, at the age of 15, he ran away from home and joined a rodeo. When the cowboy thing didn’t pan out he pursued his second ambition, which was to be a country-folk singer in the manner of his idol Woody Guthrie.
Elliott became the great man’s disciple, even to the point of living with the Guthrie family for a couple of years. Attracted by the no-frills, plainspoken directness of the Guthrie style, he soon developed his own sparse and non-Brooklynese approach, stoic and to the point (though there’s also a soulfulness in Guthrie’s music which he never quite assimilated).
Elliott is widely considered to be the link between Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and it’s true that early Dylan sounds a lot more like Ramblin’ Jack than Woody. But Dylan went on to become a world-class original, while Elliott remained the folkie’s folkie, more heard of than heard, something which has left him no more embittered than he has the right to be.
But then, if one thing comes through clearly in this intermittently entertaining documentary made by his daughter Aiyana Elliott, it’s that Ramblin’ Jack is not a man who is about to let himself be known. Whether spinning semi-tall tales or avoiding his daughter’s attempts to get closer to the father who rambled a bit too much when she was a child, Elliott remains paradoxically talkative and tight-lipped, well-hidden behind his created persona.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.