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The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack (2000)
It's rare when the most bothersome person in a documentary is the documentarian, but that's the case with The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which is both a history of the folk singer Jack Elliott and an attempt by his filmmaking daughter, Aiyana, to reconcile with her wayward father.
Dave Van Ronk
Special Jury Prize for artistic achievement in a documentary; Sundance Film Festival
"Just say the words, tell the story, play a little bit of guitar."
Jack Elliott was born Elliott Charles Abnopoz in Brooklyn, NY in 1931, the son of a Jewish doctor, but he was a wanderer from the get-go. At 15 he ran away and joined the rodeo but was turned back when the rodeo manager found out his age. The rodeo man was kind. He told young Elliott: If you go back and get an education, then you can be a cowboy or a doctor or whatever you want to be. If you stay here you won't be nothing but a cowboy.
But it was the cowboy life that appealed to Elliott. Even in New York City, he wore big cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. When he became friends with Woody Guthrie whose songs Elliott heard on the radio, and who was living in New York at the time, suffering from Huntington's disease Woody's son, Arlo, loved the cowboy in him. "I couldn't wait for him to show up," Arlo recalls. Elliott renamed, in the American tradition, Jack Elliott soon followed Woody's former rambling lifestyle, and traveled around the country, guitar in hand. He married in California, and he and his wife traveled to England at that moment in the middle of the skiffle craze that would affect a young John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Jack Elliott was popular there, but popularity and fame were never his focus, and eventually he and his wife went separate ways. By the time he returned to America in the early '60s, New York City and Greenwich Village were in the middle of a folk craze, and Jack, among the folk cognoscenti, was something of a legend. He gave concerts and appeared on TV shows, and influenced a young Bob Dylan, who was first booked as "The Son of Jack Elliott."
The documentary strongly implies that Dylan, after gathering what he needed from Jack, flew off to fame and success and left everyone behind. Yet Dylan seems to have done nothing with Jack that Jack hadn't done with Woody. Dylan just got famous, that's all. There's footage of Jack smoking pot in a Greenwich Village bathtub in 1966, talking about all the people who were suddenly telling him he sounded like Dylan. "I've been singing like Dylan for twenty years," he adds wistfully, between puffs. "How you figure that one out?" Later, in old age, he admits that Dylan had a lot of ambition. "More ambition than I ever had," he says with slight sadness.
Yet if Dylan and Jack has such a falling out, as the documentary implies, why did they tour together in the 1970s, as the documentary shows? Better question: Didn't Woody and Dylan become icons more for the songs they wrote than for the way they sang? So where are Jack's songs? In the long list at the end of the film, only two are written by him.
In the late '60s Jack met and married his fourth wife, Aiyana's mother, and they lived together for a time on the California coast. But she left him for another man, and there's a great scene where Jack, on a sailboat, talks about his anger at her leave-taking and how he dealt with it. "I'd been studying yoga through your Mom," he tells Aiyana, "and that's why I didn't take a gun and shoot somebody. Because I learned through yoga that if you don't have something or you miss something it's because you didn't own it in the first place... I went and talked to my yoga master about it and he kind of giggled and said..." and here Jack adopts a high, insincere voice "'It's like you have a Cadillac and you left it parked somewhere with the keys in and somebody jumped in and drove away. All you have to do is find the Cadillac, get in and come home. Bring candy, bring flowers, be friendly.'" You can tell that the cowboy in Jack doesn't quite buy into it; yet he also knows it was useful. It prevented him from killing someone.
Jack's story is three-quarters of the documentary. The other quarter, interspersed throughout, is the virtually-unseen Aiyana's attempt, behind the shield of the camera, to reconcile with her father. As she follows him, asking questions about his life, her voice-over informs us, "I can't remember having an actual conversation with my Dad," and she keeps nagging him for such a talk. Finally he asks her, "Well, I don't know what your sitting talking sessions imply..." and neither do we. What is she after? Finally Arlo Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk set her straight. "Maybe there's part of him that you're never gonna know," Arlo says to her.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott never saw much success. "That's the story of his life," Kris Kristoferson says. "With other people having hits on the stuff that he... might be responsible for."
June 16, 2001
© 2001 Erik Lundegaard