‘Ballad’ Sees Ramblin’ Jack Through His Daughter’s Eyes
Elliott Charles Adnopoz, the oldest son of Flossie and Dr. Abraham Adnopoz of Brooklyn, N.Y., dreamed the most powerful dream.
Living on prosaic Linden Boulevard, young Elliott didn’t merely wish he was a riding, roping, don’t-fence-me-in cowboy, he convinced himself he actually was. With a vision that uncompromising, it was only a matter of time until reality caught up and made the dream flesh.
In one of the great confirmations of America’s receptivity to personality remakes, Elliott Adnopoz reinvented himself into Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the folk-music legend, cowboy icon and recipient of the National Medal of Arts whom Sam Shepard called “a wandering true American minstrel.” Added Johnny Cash, “Nobody I know, and I mean nobody, has covered more ground, made more friends and sung more songs than Jack Elliott.”
There’s material enough in that transformation, and in Elliott’s place as a kind of missing link in American music, to make “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” an excellent documentary, but filmmaker Aiyana Elliott, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced, adds another, more poignant level. She’s not just an NYU film school graduate with a great subject, she’s also the subject’s daughter.
If Jack Elliott was king of the hard travelers, he was also the most evasive dad ever; it’s no accident that this film’s first shot of him is hazy and unclear. A man with a gift for making strangers feel like friends, Elliott simultaneously kept those closest to him at arm’s length, both physically and psychologically.
As a result, “Ballad” is part of what Aiyana calls “a lifelong struggle to get time with my dad,” to understand and accept him and overcome the frustration of “having the world’s greatest rambler” for a father. Rather than clashing, the film’s professional and personal aspects reinforce each other, creating, with the help of generous doses of Elliott’s captivating music, a warm and feisty documentary that is as much inquiry as it is tribute.
The singer always resented the indignity of being born in Brooklyn (“My parents,” he says, “did it to me out of spite”), and as soon as he could, when he was 14, he ran away and joined the Col. Jim Eskew Ranch Rodeo and learned to sing and play some of the songs he’d heard on late-night radio visits to the Grand Ole Opry.
Eventually tracked down by his parents, Elliott returned to New York and fell under the spell of the raw, unadorned honesty of Woody Guthrie. The Oklahoma troubadour was living in Coney Island at the time, and Elliott not only became Guthrie’s protege, he moved in with the family. Guthrie could be touchy about his music (“You can steal whatever you like, but I’m not giving it away,” he told Elliott), but interviews with children Arlo and Nora Guthrie make it clear that the singer, stricken with Huntington’s chorea, was grateful for someone to pass his legacy on to.
Elliott traveled around America and made an extended visit to Will Geer in Topanga Canyon in the mid-1950s. There he met first wife June Shelley, who joined him in what turned into six years of performing in Europe. His return to the United States in 1961, as the folk-music revival was hitting its stride, created a sensation.
It wasn’t just Elliott’s abilities as a yodeler, flat picker and world-class storyteller that earned him fans, it was his rascally persona as well. With dark good looks, a wry sense of humor and perpetual cat-eating-the-canary half-grin, Elliott fit the “rake and a rambling boy” mold as if it’d been made for him.
The singer also came back to the United States in time to meet a very young Bob Dylan at Woody Guthrie’s bedside. As much of a devoted protege as Elliott had been to Guthrie, so Dylan became to Elliott, so much so that when the young man had his first gig at New York’s Gerde’s Folk City, the sign read “The Son of Jack Elliott.”
What Dylan had, and Elliott did not, was burning ambition, but that was only one of the reasons the older man never progressed far past cult. Someone who thrived on disorganization and irresponsibility, Elliott could not focus enough, let alone plan enough, to have a major career. No, he tells the camera, he never had a manager: “I just had wives, and I wore out four of them.”
The daughter of Elliott’s last marriage, filmmaker Aiyana Elliott tries to capture her father by following him to favorite haunts like the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., and interviewing ex-wives and girlfriends as well as fellow travelers like Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk and Odetta.
If “Ballad” shows us exactly why Aiyana Elliott is so frustrated, it lets us in on some of her father’s disappointments as well, like an eventual chilly aloofness on the part of Dylan even though, as Arlo Guthrie puts it, “there wouldn’t be any Bob Dylan without Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.”
That National Medal of Arts as well as winning a Grammy for best traditional folk album for 1995’s “South Coast” have apparently helped soothe Elliott’s generic irritations with the music business. It would be something if this fine documentary helped more in restoring Elliott’s luster, and better still if it created the kind of closeness with his talented daughter she is yearning for and deserves.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: a few mild swear words and a bit of drug use.
‘The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack’
Released by Lot 47 Films. Director Aiyana Elliott. Producers Aiyana Elliott, Paul Mezey, Dan Partland. Executive producers Hunter Gray, Tyler Brodie, Jesse Crawford. Screenplay Aiyana Elliott & Dick Dahl. Editors David Baum, Susan Littenberg. Music Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
In selected theaters.