43. Ramblin Jack Elliot: Troubadour

Posted on 02/04/2017

43. Ramblin Jack Elliott: Troubadour

As a teenager, one of my fondest possessions was a Ramblin Jack album of songs by Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rodgers. He was shown with a foot on the bumper of a vintage Rolls Royce. We assumed that the ‘Ramblin’ referred to his travels. But as it turns out, it was due to his inability to stick to the point of a conversation!

The son of a Jewish surgeon, he was intended for the same career, but ran away to join a travelling rodeo show at the age of 15, and became a travelling troubadour himself. Unlike other middle class kids who took up folk singing (for instance Townes van Zandt), he survived and is still alive in his mid 80’s. Townes van Zandt was, sadly, a manic depressive and drug addict, which is not the route to a long stay here on earth. Van Zandt,unlike Elliott, also wrote songs,  very affecting ones too. Such as this:

Ramblin Jack never ventured into songwriting: just singing existing songs. But listen to his version of ‘If I were a carpenter’, shown below. Many have sung this song straight, and its a good song. But Ramblin Jack alters the phrasing and makes a much greater emotional impact.

Ramblin Jack has always had the saving grace of a keen sense of humour.  Look at his interaction with Johnny Cash in the video below. Johnny Cash welcomes him to his show in a little couplet, and then goes on with another, saying he’d heard Ramblin Jack was dead. Jack replies that whoever said that must be crazy as hell, cause you’d be the first one I’d tell’. Nice impromptu punch line!


Ramblin Jack played with Woody Guthrie before the latter’s untimely death, and taught Arlo Guthrie, his son, his father’s guitar style. He also had a big influence on the young Bob Dylan: Guthrie having been a great star to any aspiring folk singer, as Dylan originally was.

Guthrie was a political acitivist in song, as was Dylan, earlier in life. But Ramblin Jack simply seems to have sung the songs. A genuine troubadour. As was van Zandt. There is still the old Troubadour cafe in West London, at which Dylan played in his troubarour days.

I wish I couild say I’d played there, as it was a pillar of radical chic at one time. But I just went there for breakfast, and the radical chic barristas clearly disliked their  middle class customers, even though requiring their custom to stay in business. I did know a punk poet, Terry Walpole, who performed there. Thats the nearest I got!

Ramblin Jack remains a troubadour. Although Dylan has (in theory) a non-stop global tour going on that began several decades ago, he is not really a troubadour any more. When he went electric and got a band, it rather put an end to the ‘man and his guitar’ thing. Ramblin Jack still is a quintessential troubadour.


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