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'Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, The'

Jack Daughter's documentary tries to figure out Ramblin' Jack Elliott

Friday, September 22, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When a man once told Ramblin' Jack Elliott that he sounded just like the much-younger Bob Dylan, he replied: "I've been singing like Bob for 20 years. You figure it out."

'The Ballad Of Ramblin' Jack'

RATING: Not rated but PG-13 in nature.

DIRECTOR: Aiyana Elliott

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Dylan flattered the daylights out of Elliott. Of course, Elliott had been a sidekick and acolyte of Woody Guthrie who, after he was stricken with Huntington's disease, said, "Jack sounds more like me than I do myself."

A new documentary made by Aiyana Elliott, daughter of the singer The New York Times once called a "vagabond minstrel," puts the legacies and legends into perspective. "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," opening today at the Harris Theater, is a fascinating if slightly flawed look at a man who helped shape this country's musical scene.

If his name is unfamiliar to younger moviegoers, it's probably because he boycotted the recording industry for two decades -- bitter over never receiving royalties. The music world very belatedly recognized him with a Grammy in 1996 for best traditional folk album and he received the National Medal of Arts in 1998.

Earlier in his life, Elliott literally sang for his supper throughout the South, enthralled folkies who gathered in New York's Washington Square Park and flat-picked his guitar beside Johnny Cash on television. Succumbing to his wanderlust, he collected adventures, stories and fans along the back roads and byways.

Elliott's story is richer than a double CD of country music. Still using his given name of Elliott Adnopoz, this son of a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn ran away at 14 and joined the rodeo as a groom. He re-invented himself as a cowboy, married four times, nurtured a generation of folk singers and even inspired a few Brits during his time in London.

As a father, though, he left something to be desired. And that is partially why Aiyana Elliott undertook this project. She thought spending time on the road with her dad would bring her some answers and satisfaction. She seems to get a little of both, but not enough. He can be evasive and cranky, and she can seem petulant.

Aiyana is frustrated that he won't sit down for a formal talk, but organization and formality are not Ramblin' Jack's style. He turned 69 in August, and it's unrealistic to think that at this stage of the game he's going to be writing set lists or hiring a manager or demonstrating the sort of single-mindedness that helped others to become stars. His head was always out there in the cosmos, friends agree.

The filmmaker captures her father in action on the stage, at the wheel of an RV, on a boat and even at home, where he leafs through a scrapbook and comments on the commentary. She also interviews: two of his wives, his brother, his aunt, Arlo Guthrie (Ramblin' Jack lived with the Guthries for a year), Pete Seeger, Odetta and Kris Kristofferson. Aiyana requested an interview with Dylan but it was "quickly and firmly declined."

She makes excellent use of archival material, from stock footage of a rodeo in the early '40s at Madison Square Garden to home movies, TV appearances, still photos and news clippings. But she leaves questions unasked or chose not to include the exchanges in the final product.

Aiyana makes brief reference to another daughter, born to Elliott during his third marriage, then never mentions her again. She notes how Elliott had been passed over for a tribute concert after Woody Guthrie died; he eventually was allowed to perform, but the snub is never explained. She glosses over drug use and never asks her mother why she left the cowboy crooner for a one-eyed weirdo (as Elliott calls him).

Elliott admits, into a microphone during a performance, "I haven't been a very good father." But as an old pal acknowledges, if Elliott had settled down, the world would have gained one more family man and lost one entertainer. That doesn't seem much consolation to Aiyana when her father calls to wish her happy birthday six days late.

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