Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Oct 30, 2023
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is still wandering and warbling at 92
Woody Guthrie's sidekick and the 'father' of Bob Dylan returns to his native Brooklyn next month for the Folk Festival
The word “legend” gets tossed around a lot. But if anyone is worthy of the designation it would be Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Born Elliott Charles Adnopoz in 1931, Elliott is one of the last authentic living links to the great folk traditions of this country. The child of two well-to-do Jewish parents who grew up in Brooklyn, Elliott was, he says, “destined to be a traveler.”
Smitten with the rodeo that would come through Madison Square Garden in the early 1940s, Elliott ran away from home at just 15 and joined J.E. Ranch Rodeo outside of Washington, D.C. There he learned the basics of guitar from a rodeo clown named Braemar Rogers before his anxious parents tracked him down and brought him home. In 1950, after graduating from Midwood High School, he met Woody Guthrie in Manhattan and was taken in by the Guthrie family. Elliot would travel with Guthrie to California and Florida before a six-year stint in Europe, during which time his reputation grew in the burgeoning New York folk scene.
He returned to the States to find that a young folk singer named Bob Dylan had arrived on the scene. Elliott would essentially mentor him in the ways of Woody Guthrie, who was ailing at that point. It would be no exaggeration to say if it were not for Jack Elliot there may not have been a Bob Dylan.
At 92 years of age, Elliott is returning to Brooklyn next month to perform at the Brooklyn Folk Festival on Sunday, November 12 at St. Ann’s Church. The whole festival lineup is excellent.
But first, Elliott joins me on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” Aside from Woody Guthrie, he’s worked with or learned from legends of an earlier generation including Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie Mcghee and Sonny Terry, Jesse Fuller and Champion Jack Dupree.
A founding member of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Elliott was personal a friend of Johnny Cash. He has two Grammys and a National Medal of Arts given to him by President Clinton. Everyone from Tom Waits to Beck, Bonnie Raitt to Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen to the Grateful Dead to The Rolling Stones have paid homage to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead calls him a “hand-built, self-architectured American icon.”
So I’m going to get out of the way and let Ramblin’ Jack ramble on … as is his want.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
We don’t have many legends that live up to the status of legends these days, and I believe you are one of them.
Well, thank you very much. I’m not entirely sure I understand what that means, but that’s OK. If I did, I’d probably get a swelled head and get stuck up. It’s one thing I’m not is I’m up, but I’m not stuck up.
Well, I would like to start with something that not a lot of people experience, and that’s being in your 90s. You’re 92 now. What does it feel like to be 92?
Well, first of all, I don’t know how I got here. I do know it wasn’t on the BMT. Do they still have that?
They’ve rebranded, but the old timers will know what the BMT is. You were born in Brooklyn, to your BMT point. You were born here. You couldn’t get out of here fast enough. What was Brooklyn like in the 1940s?
Well, there were a lot of trolley cars, and I liked the trolley cars. In fact, I could hear a trolley car about a half a block away. The noise was kind of like music to my ears. It went [imitates the trolley].
But you weren’t happy here. Growing up, you would go to the rodeos at Madison Square Garden. What was the draw to the rodeo? And I know that you first saw a cowboy riding his horse down Linden Boulevard at one point.
Oh, you heard about that? Oh my gosh.
I heard about that. Can you tell that story?
That was good. That was in 1945. I started going to the rodeo in Madison Square Garden in 1940; that was before World War II. Gene Autry was the singing star and his horse, Champion, and he had another horse that looked a lot like Champion. They could have been brothers, Champion and Junior, and he sang songs like [sings] “I’m back in the saddle again/Out where a friend is a friend/Where the longhorn cattle feed/on the lonely jimson weed.”
I wanted to get out there and see some longhorns and some jimsonweed, but I did see a few of them in the rodeo. They had about 20 or 30 longhorns that they kept in the basement of Madison Square Garden. All the livestock was kept in the basement. In fact, they traveled by train from town to town with all of their bucking horses and bulls and calves and steers. It was remarkable how they ever got all those animals herded into a train and off the train and drove them down the street from the railroad yards to Madison Square Garden, which is a distance of about four blocks, the cowboys on horseback driving the cattle right down the street from the train to the building. When we would go into Madison Square Garden or anything in New York City, we called it going to New York.
We still do.
Brooklyn was an island unto itself. Well, it was on [in a Long Island accent] LonGisland, the only gisland in the planet.
You were not a fan. You had these sophisticated… Father was a doctor and your birth name is Adnopoz. You couldn’t escape that quickly enough, it sounds like.
You’re one of the first people that ever pronounced it correctly too. In fact, when I ran away from home, shortly after meeting that cowboy who went riding down the street, I heard the hoof beats. We had horse-drawn wagons back then. There was the Borden’s milk wagon that delivered milk and there were junk wagons that collected interesting junk like old rusty lawnmowers, and there was a wagon that came by a horse-drawn wagon for sharpening your scissors or sharpening your lawnmower, and there were vegetable wagons that came from farms out on Long Island, and Linden Boulevard was a major highway, New York 27. It went all the way from Flatbush Avenue to Montauk Point. It was about 120 miles out at the end, and one time I had a craving to see the rest of this island that I’ve been living on for over 10 years, and I think I was about 12 or so. I hitchhiked, and I got a ride in a truck all the way out to Montauk Point in a blizzard.
And hitchhiked back, and that was one of my first adventures you might say, but we had a lot of trucks that would stop at the red light, and it was a very long red light on Bedford Avenue, and they were stopped long enough for me to read their name and address on the door of the tractor. A lot of them were from North Carolina. I started falling in love with these trucks because they go to far-away places, the farther away the better. I was destined to be a traveler to see what the other parts of the world might look like.
And it may be in your DNA because just to illustrate how close history actually is, I read that you had an uncle who was in the Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which is remarkable.
Yeah, Uncle Joe.
Did he tell you stories about T.R. and the Rough Riders?
He never talked about it. He was a very silent old bean. He was a farmer. He had 3,000 chickens on his farm. He taught me how to kill chickens with an ax. It was my first experience with murder.
Hopefully there weren’t too many experiences with it.
I was about 11 years old at the time, so I was willing to learn anything and everything. Also, he also had a neighbor that taught carpentry. He taught carpentry in a local high school up there in Connecticut. Mr. Tomlin, I think was his name, and I took lessons in carpentry with him and learned how to draw a pencil line on a board on how to cut a straight line with a cutoff saw or a rip saw, all kinds of good stuff.
And you applied some of that later in life as well, but when you were 14, the cowboy bug had really taken root. You ran away and joined a rodeo.
Yeah, I was 15. At 14, I was too young to do anything, I guess. I got a ride in a truck that was going down to North Carolina. Now, I was really delighted to finally get to be able to see what North Carolina looks like and be there, but I didn’t make it all the way down. As we were coming through Washington, D.C., I noticed a big sign proclaiming that the J.E. Ranch Rodeo was performing at the Uline Arena, and I thanked the trucker for his ride and got out and made it over to crosstown to the Uline Arena and asked them for a job, and they gave me a job grooming horses.
They couldn’t pronounce Adnopoz either, so they asked me my name. I told them the name and they said, “We’ll call you Poncho.” Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but Poncho was a beloved rodeo clown who used to drink white wine and get crazy and let the bulls throw him up in the air. I later saw a black-and-white picture postcard of Poncho the Clown up in the air with a bull on the ground looking up at him waiting to catch him on his horns.
Is that where you started learning guitar? Because you were brought back to finish high school and then you left again for good. You ultimately found Woody Guthrie.
We had two clowns on that rodeo. One of them was Braemar Rogers and Braemar, named after a breed of cattle, which is what most of the best bucking bulls are either purebred Brahma or part Brahma and part Hereford or part Angus or part something else, but it’s good to have a little bit of Brahma blood in a bull because it makes them even wilder, unlike the ones back in India that are worshiped and fondled and live on the streets.
Braemar Rogers played the banjo and the guitar and sang cowboy songs and hillbilly songs, and he would entertain us rodeo hands in the stands between the afternoon show and the evening show. Well, as soon as they hired me, they were loading up to leave Washington, D.C. The next morning, we got on a train with all our bulls, and broncs, and calves, livestock, and people, and rode on a train all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was about a 10-hour train trip and sucked up a lot of coal dust off the railroad tracks. I had to wash my hands and face about once every hour.
Were you scared at all, a 15-year-old boy on the rails joining the rodeo?
I wasn’t smart enough to get scared. I was just enjoying everything and I didn’t care for the coal dust too much, but when we got off that train in Pittsburgh, my first job was to help unload about 50 bucking horses out of the train and put them in a truck, and I didn’t get bit or kicked or stepped on, and it was a marvelous lesson in how to maneuver around and how to get along with those wild animals that were supposedly not fond of people. I had six horses in my string. They were grand entry horses mostly. My job was to feed them in the morning, brush them, saddle them, hand them to the cowboys. They’d ride them in the arena during the show. They’d hand the horses back to me. I’d walk them and cool them off, unsaddle them, and put them away, and I was sleeping on the ground in a tent with 60 horses and I thought I was in heaven.
It didn’t last forever though. You were brought back home and finished high school.
About three months, Colonel Jim called me over to the house. We were on the ranch, J.E. Ranch up in Waverley, New York, overlooking Sayre, Pennsylvania, from High Hill. He says, “Is this your picture, Poncho?” It was an old picture of me looking quite homely, sitting in a little boat. I said, “Yeah, Colonel Jim, that’s me all right. Yep, that’s my picture.” He said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a runaway? I wouldn’t have hired you if I’d known you was a runaway.” “Well,” I said, “Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell you.”
And this picture was a missing person photo?
Yeah, it was a missing person bureau picture. I showed it to the cook and the cook gave me some flap jacks, which was the only food I was able to digest on that ranch. The best pancakes I ever ate. I would eat between 11 and 19 pancakes every morning. I loved those pancakes. He said, “Write your folks a letter. Tell them you’re alive. Let them know you’re OK. They’re worried about you.” And of course, I did write them a letter and they received it and wrote me back and said I’d be welcome to come home if I wanted to finish up high school, and they would put up with me, put me up, both feed me, and I caught a bus back to Yew Nork Titty.
The story from there is just… It gets more and more incredible, the life you’ve had. I want to fast-forward a bit to after high school when you linked up with Woody Guthrie. You’re probably one of the last living people who have had a close friendship with him, who learned from him, who could carry on his work in a sincere way. What was that relationship?
Well, I was known as Woody’s sidekick, and I guess that’s a pretty good description of what I was. I was a sidekick. Anything you wanted to do or a place to go, I would be willing to go with him. I remember when his song “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” was a big hit by The Weavers and it was on jukeboxes. We went in a bar somewhere in Brooklyn over by Bay Ridge, I don’t know where we were going, but we stopped in there and he put a quarter in the jukebox and played “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” and he would stand in front of the jukebox tapping his foot, and I was so proud and wanted to yell and tell people, “Hey, this is the guy that wrote that song,” but I thought it was cooler not to say a word and just see what happens.
The Weavers, of course, had a much more polished sound than Woody.
A little square. I actually interviewed Pete Seeger once.
In 2008, he was 89.
How was that?
He was lovely, and I asked him at one point, “What is music for? Is it for entertaining? Is it for teaching, activism?” And he said, “My father was a bureaucrat in the New Deal, and he signed musicians to a development project.” He said, “The important thing is, not is it good music, but what is the music good for?” That was his answer.
That’s a good answer.
I wonder how you would answer that question, what is music for? You’ve certainly spent a lifetime performing it. You were a great flat picker, great finger picker, you could sing. What would you say music is for?
Different people get different kinds of enjoyment from listening to music, but it can soothe the ruffled mind in a worried person and it can inspire people to be more mellow and inspire people to be more kind to their fellow man and share the joy and pleasure of the feeling of enjoying the music, even if it’s really rough. Good music might be bad music. I’m not the one to say what is good or bad about music, because obviously it does a lot of good for some people that … I’ve met people that say, “I love all music.” I don’t think it’s possible to love all music because if you love some music, you’re going to hate some other music.
I think that’s true.
But people who love all music are mostly deaf.
I wonder what you would want young people today who may never have heard of Woody Guthrie to know about him. How would you want him to be remembered or spoken of today?
That’s a trick question for me because today I’m not the same person I was back then either, but the first I ever heard about Woody was I was hanging out with an old Danish sailmaker in Brooklyn who had a sailmaker shop near my high school and after school every afternoon I would drop in and watch Mr. Erickson making sails, and he had run away from home when he was 13 years old and sailed around Cape Horn in a big square rigger, and he’d been around the Horn 12 times, and he soon became a sailmaker when he was in those ships right on deck making the sails.
His product, was as soon as he finished building a sail, it might be hoisted up a loft and bent onto a yard, and there you could admire the results of your hand work, pulling and bending in curves full of wind, pulling the ship to its destination. I thought, what an instant gratification. A lot of artists and painters paint a painting. They may keep it for a month or a year before they sell it somehow. I’ve met some good painters who seem to resent me or envy me from singing a song and getting immediate applause. They thought that was a little too easy.
You sing the song, but it takes years to perfect the craft and learn the music and the history behind it.
That may be. I had to fall off a lot of horses before I could sing a cowboy song with the proper intonation and the right kind of feeling about what it meant.
Well, Woody said at one point that you sounded more like him than he did. You toured around Europe, you come back and I’m sorry to rehash all your greatest hits here, I’m sure you’ve told these stories a million times, but what an amazing life. You’re back in New York and there’s a young Bob Dylan hanging around, another Jewish kid from out of town who changed his name. He picked up a lot of his style, his singing from you, and he was at one point billed the Son of Ramblin’ Jack for a while. I wonder if you could take us back to meeting Dylan and hanging around with him.
Well, that was like a magical happenstance. I had been singing in Europe for six years and doing a lot of singing and talking about Woody Guthrie and especially in Britain where they speak English. They have a strange brand of English, which may not be understood in Brooklyn, but they do speak good English in England. I learned how to speak English while I was over there, and they just started loving Woody and singing the songs along with me. I sang “This Land is Your Land,” and these kids were singing along with me, but unlike Pete [Seeger], I don’t try to get people singing with me or anything. I’m glad if they’re listening because if they’re singing with me, they’re not hearing me. They’re mostly hearing themselves and the person immediately to the left, to the right, and behind them, and I’m just part of the noise, which is great.
I got into music through the noise angle. Music is mostly and mainly noise, and I was always a noise freak. I love the sound of noises, like cows mooing, horses whining, dogs barking, steam locomotives chugging, that was one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard. And it gradually, not suddenly, but gradually … Because it’s a heavy, heavy train, it’s a lot of momentum and it gradually increases and gets faster and faster and faster and faster. [Imitating a steam train] Choof-choof-choof-choof …
It picks up steam.
But the gradual way that it increases speed is exciting to sit back and wait and listen and wait, because we have to appreciate the fact that that train has got maybe 100 cars and weighs many thousands of tons. It’s not like a Ford, it’s like the Lord. Some things are big and some things are bigger, bigger than us.
I’ve heard you were a fan of the crowds at Ebbets Field too, the sounds that they would make.
I never learned how to understand or appreciate baseball, but I used to get a kick out of hearing the crowd when Pee Wee Reese hit a ball out of the park and it broke a window in the dry cleaning establishment on Bedford Avenue, three miles up the hill, Ebbets Field.
Back to Dylan. It’s funny because he sort of started in the same place. You started a little bit ahead of him even. Do you resent the success he had, or is he just a different kind of a person?
I’m impressed by it, and I’m very proud. I should communicate more with him. He’s a little hard to reach.
These late days, do you feel like you’ve gotten your due? Do you think that matters? Are you content?
I think it’s great that he caught on and that so many people appreciate his work and his poetry and his songs. I’ve been going to the Cowboy Poetry Gatherings for about 35 years myself and enjoy that tremendously. Elko, Nevada, which is an old cow town and still is a cow town, although its biggest money business is a large gold mine, which is Canadian owned. That’s only about 60 miles north of Elko, and a lot of those gold miners live in hotels in Elko.
And you’d go there every year. You’ve been going there for decades at this point, right?
Yeah, I’ve been going there for 33 years. It’s about 36 years old now. The first one was in 1985. I missed it, I didn’t know about it or I would’ve gone, but I found out about it, just luckily met someone who told me about it, and I went a few days later to Elko, Nevada, and to my first gathering in Elko, Nevada, in 1986.
I did watch the other day, because I knew we were going to speak, the documentary that your daughter made about you. There’s footage of you at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I wonder if you’ve watched that film. It was 20 years old at this point, but there’s a lot of really great moments in it.
That was a very enjoyable film, and I enjoyed playing the part of Ramblin’ Jack in the movie.
There’s a moment in the film that made me laugh out loud. It was an interview with Kris Kristofferson, and I believe Odetta has said this as well, that a lot of people think you’re called Ramblin’ Jack Elliott because you’ve roamed the earth and performed everywhere, but it’s actually because you’re quite loquacious.
It was Odetta’s mother who made up that name.
[Coughs and pauses to sip from a mug] I just took a little sip of coffee and it soothed my throat. I used to like whiskey and I still like it in retrospect, although it killed my wife Jan. I introduced Jan to Jim Beam. She’d already been an alcoholic for a while, so I don’t claim to cause the alcoholism.
You still partake from time to time? I’m sorry to hear that about Jan.
I do, yeah.
I like Jim Beam.
I was very sorry to lose her. She was a very lovable person.
When did she pass?
She passed on the 22nd of March, which is the first day of spring in 2001. That was almost 22 years ago. March 22nd. She’s very sorely missed, and she played guitar and sang and loved horses. She was a cowgirl at heart, a redhead by birth.
Same, a member of the tribe.
And my first wife was a redhead, and I’ve been entangled with redheads most of my life. I was just trying to think of the name of one of my earliest friends back in Brooklyn because I was searching my mind trying to remember if I could remember anything likable worth telling about and sharing from those days on Linden Boulevard. And I had a kid down the street my age, and his name was Alan Bloomquist, a Swedish boy, and his father was the superintendent of an apartment house. And a lot of the apartment house superintendents in New York City are ex-sailors that sailed in merchant vessels because they knew how to work with steam and steam pipes because all the buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn are heated by steam in the wintertime.
They still are. Mine is anyway.
You got to be able to repair steam pipes when they blow. Mr. Bloomquist was an old merchant seaman, and he had sailed in schooners when he was a young boy. In fact, one of the first times I met the man, I was visiting Alan at his house. Alan was showing me a book about a trip around the world in a boat from a guy from Norway, Erling Tambs, who sailed with his wife, and she was pregnant when they left Norway, I think, or soon after they left. And the baby was born in the South Atlantic or somewhere like Cape Town, and they went on to New Zealand where there was shipwrecked.
And about this, I was amazed by this adventure story, and there’re some photographs in the book. It was called “The Cruise of the Teddy,” that was the name of the boat. And in walked his father, Alan’s father, Mr. Bloomquist. And he says to me in an old commandeering sort of voice, he says, [in a thick Swedish accent] “Can you name the masts in a seven-masted schooner?” I was about 11 or 12 years old. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I asked him to please repeat the question, and he did, “Can you name masts in the seven-masted schooner?” He had a Swedish accent.
You’re a great mimic.
Well, I said no. And he told me the name, fore, main, mizzen, jigger, pusher, driver, spanker. Fore, main, mizzen, jigger, pusher, driver, spanker. I was hooked.
I was going to get to sailing because you are a sailor. You were a sailor. I don’t know if you still sail these days.
I’ve still got rusty toenails. They rust about once a month at high tide.
You built ships at a certain point, did you not?
Well, I built some small boats. I’ve worked on some dories. I love dories. I fell in love with dories at an early age too.
What is a dory?
I think the first dories were built in Portugal. The name dory might be a conjunction of the word Douro, which is the name of a river in Portugal where they had square rig barges that carried wine down the river and they would ride the river down to the ocean with a load of wine, which was stored in cow skins. What a wonderful way to transport wine. And in Spain, they drink wine out of cow skin, botas at bull fights. It’s a kind of a leather bag made out of cow hide.
So, we were talking about Odetta and your—
I’m sorry, I get sidetracked.
And you know I love it. Well, this gets to my point of your rambling is not your traveling, although it certainly is. It’s the stories.
Well, it helps me to be fresh because for telling the same story for like 80 years or so can get mighty stilting, stiltified.
I respect that, and as an interviewer, I appreciate hearing new stories because no one wants to hear the same stories all over again.
I enjoy telling them again. It might be the 500th time I’ve told the same story, but it’s a little different every time.
How’s the guitar playing? It’s got to be harder to keep up.
The guitar is not like it used to be. In fact, I’m going to bring my guitar into a very talented luthier Larry Craig, who fixes guitars and he’s very good on fixing guitars because I find the action on my new guitar to be a little bit difficult and we’re going to have to do some work on the guitar later today.
You’re coming back to Brooklyn in November. It’s the folk festival. You’ve got a set on the main stage. Are you excited? Do you get to perform much anymore?
Well, I did a show two nights ago in San Francisco in a place called The Chapel, a wonderful crowd and a great room.
Any hints for what you might be performing here in Brooklyn?
Well, I don’t usually plan those things until about five minutes before I go on stage.
That’s right, you wing it.
But I’ll have a list of about 25 or so songs that we’ll choose from, and I’m going to have one of my favorite bass players traveling with me, Paul Knight. And Bobby Carradine, whose father John Carradine played the part of a doryman in a motion picture called “Captains Courageous” back in the late ’30s.
That’s amazing. Well, I’m excited for the show. “If I Were a Carpenter” is one of my favorite songs, I love the way you do it. I love “Coo Coo Bird,” all that Harry Smith stuff. Did you listen to the Harry Smith anthology when it came out, or was that all stuff you already knew?
Oh, more than that. I had a beer with Harry.
And Harry was a great beer drinker in addition to being one of the greatest ear people in the world. He had a good ear for music and a good ear for sounds and noise. Of course, that includes noise. Harry did some of the finest recordings that are available on Folkways Records, and that “Coo Coo” is one of my favorite songs. And I recently, about a year ago, I did a show in LA, a large big audience, all standing-room only, and that song, “If I Were a Carpenter,” was a beauty, and I sang it well and played it well and it was my pièce de résistance.
I used to save it for the end, and a lot of people would demand it afterwards. I got tired of it. I got so miserably tired of playing it that I just couldn’t do it anymore, even when people asked for it and they still asked for it. So, this guy asked for “Carpenter.” I thought, “I’m going to have to explain this because I wanted him to understand why I cannot grant that request,” and I gave him about six seconds of dead air, which is worth about $11,000 at today’s rate of exchange. I thought about it really seriously for a while, couldn’t say a word, and they’re wondering, “Why is he not saying anything? We paid all this money to come here and hear him. He’s standing there and he’s entertaining us by not saying a damn thing. What’s wrong with that guy?” And I thought about what it was, and I said it to him, “If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady, we wouldn’t be here now,” and they dug it. I got a big laugh. So, I’m still singing and picking and making up jokes.
Well, I hope to hear some new ones, and it’s great. Those are two of my favorites. I love every version of anyone’s doing those songs.
Well, I think life is great, living is great, and I love life, but it gets to be kind of hard sometimes. And even the greatest and happiest lives have got to have a little bit of difficulty and sadness and how do we get through that difficulty? You got to have a sense of humor. Don’t lose your sense of humor, especially now.
Amen. Kids don’t really want to be cowboys anymore. What do you think happened there?
Some of them still do in the West, but the idea of a kid from New York becoming a cowboy has always been rather odd, unbelievable, and thought to be kind of ridiculous. And I was always embarrassed to admit that I was from New York because it’s been widely believed that there are no cows in New York City. A lot of people in New York City can be born and live and die without ever seeing or hearing a cow. People think it’s pretty much improbable for someone to be born in New York City and become a cowboy, although it’s widely known that a lot of cowboys came from everywhere else. They weren’t all born under the stars.
And Flatbush and Long Island used to be farmland back in that day, but it’s true. There’s something almost… A self-made American mythology to you that is really special and could only happen, lightning in a bottle, with you at the time that you were growing up. It was a very special and romantic life.
Yes, I’ve been fascinated to read books about people that traveled, especially solo travelers like Joshua Slocum who was born on a farm in Nova Scotia, and his father was farming and manufacturing shoes and he made the boy work in his shoe shop building shoes, and the kid didn’t like that at all. It was miserable work. And at a young age, he took a job cooking on a fishing boat and he got to be a good sailor fishing on schooners out of Nova Scotia and rose to level of captain and moved down to Boston, Massachusetts, and became captain of a clipper ship. And later when he retired, he was living in New Bedford, Massachusetts. A neighbor of his gave him a very old fishing boat that was thought to be about 100 years old. It was a 37-foot sloop, that’s a sailboat with one mast, two sails. A jib and a mainsail.
And he liked the lines of that boat. The shape was pleasing to the eye of a sailor, and he knew that she would be good in the sea and she was very old and rotten, and he replaced all the planking and all the frames until he had completely 100 percent a brand new boat without having to do any measurement because he duplicated each plank one at a time. And it took him over a year to rebuild that boat. And he called her Spray of Boston and he sailed around the world in 1889, got back around 1902, I think. He was gone about three years, sailed all the way around the world in his 37-foot sailboat alone. And he wrote a book about it, “Sailing Alone Around the World.” It was before my time. I read the book, but I didn’t get to meet him because he was already gone.
Is there any place in the world you haven’t been that you would still like to see?
Oh, lots of places. I’ve always wanted to see Cape Horn, but that may not happen. It’s kind of difficult to get anywhere near Cape Horn, as you probably know, but I’d like to see South America. I’d like to see some places in Asia. A friend of mine just recently got married and he’s in South America right now, but another friend just went to Tibet, and I’m anxious to hear how the Tibet trip went.
Is there anything you want to leave us with? We didn’t even get to Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt.
I had a very brief conversation with Leadbelly. I only saw him live on stage once and saw him live in a little radio station in New York City with Woody Guthrie, and he was putting his guitar in the case, and I just been playing guitar myself for about two years. So, I was naturally very thrilled to see the great Leadbelly, and it was a short while before he died. He had Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was putting his guitar away, and I was standing a little too close to him, perhaps. I accidentally bumped his elbow as he was putting the guitar in the case, and I said, “Oops.” And Leadbelly said, “Excuse me.” Or maybe it was Leadbelly said, “Oops,” and I said, “Excuse me,” but that was the entire conversation.
I remember it verbatim.
Still pretty cool. All right, well Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, this was great. Do you have anything else you want to share with us? I can say, big fan of your music.
For young people who want to learn, and I know some young people, I think most young people are happy to learn stuff and anxious to learn stuff, pay attention, pay close attention. You might learn something because not all that stuff that those old folks are saying is just noise. There’s valuable information in that noise, but you got to listen closely to hear the information.
That’s very zen, and that’s a lovely place to leave it.
That’s brand new too. That’s fresh because I never thought it up or spoke it before.
It’s a Brooklyn Magazine exclusive, I love it.
That was made up by you and me.
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