The Ramblin’ Grammy winner is eager to make another pilgrimage to Big Sur.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
There’s a very good reason why 77-year-old folk singer Jack Elliott goes by the stage name Ramblin’ Jack. A former traveling companion of folk icon Woody Guthrie and a member of Bob Dylan’s mid-’70s caravan of musicians, the Rolling Thunder Revue, Elliott is known for his lengthy– and often highly amusing– digressions between songs onstage or when posed with the simplest of questions.
When I ask the musician how folk music has changed since he started out in the mid ’50s, he answers with a joke then detours into a range of unexpected subjects. “I haven’t paid much attention to folk music since I became a hillbilly star,” he says while driving around Austin, Texas.
After stifling an infectious laugh, the Grammy award-winning artist appears to be describing a handful of deer outside the window of his friend’s vehicle. “That deer has two black tumors on its face,” he says with a sense of wonderment. “A lump of skin as big as a walnut. It could be cancer.”
From there, he swerves to how “Nashville cats” don’t know how to wear cowboy hats and how Garrison Keillor was the best actor in the 2006 film A Prairie Home Companion. Elliott never gets around to answering my question, but the journey is as rewarding and entertaining as any imagined destination.
Despite some diversions into anecdotes about Bob Dylan and a detailed description about the truck he drives, Elliott does reveal his deep connection to Big Sur. He says he first journeyed there in 1954 to meet Lillian Boss Ross, a Big Sur-based writer who wrote the lyrics to the song “South Coast.”
“South Coast” is a chilling story song set in Big Sur’s southern coastline and nearby Jolon about a man who wins his wife in a card game. The number, which Elliott performed on his 1995 album of the same name, helped him win a Grammy that year for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Elliott says he first heard “South Coast” a year before visiting Big Sur, when he was on a road trip from New York City to New Orleans in 1953 with fellow folk singer Frank Hamilton. After a dinner of pork chops and butter beans, Hamilton performed the song on the front porch of a house in North Carolina during a thunderstorm. “It was tremendously dramatic,” Elliott recalls. “With the lightning going on in the sky.”
Over the past five years, Elliott has come to Big Sur to celebrate his birthday and perform an annual show at Henry Miller Library the day before.
“I did three or four of them in a row,” he says. “I got tired of blowing out all those candles in front of all those people.”
During his 2006 birthday trip to Big Sur, Elliott hunkered down in the area’s Red Barn Studios and recorded the superb album I Stand Alone, which includes great renditions of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues” and the Carter Family’s “Engine 143.”
Elliott just recorded his as-of-yet-untitled follow-up to I Stand Alone with producer Joe Henry, who has worked with Solomon Burke and Elvis Costello. Before the CD of old blues numbers written by Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others is released, Elliott will visit Big Sur again for a performance at the Henry Miller. Unsurprisingly, he is typically circuitous about what he will do offstage in Big Sur. “I would love to say scuba dive, but I haven’t scuba diven in years so I can’t say that,” he says. “I’ll probably just sit around, look out the window and talk about horses. Maybe I’ll take a little walk around.”
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performs 3pm Saturday, Sept. 27, at the Henry Miller Library, located a quarter mile south of Nepenthe Restaurant on Highway 1, Big Sur. $27.50. 667-2574. To see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performing “South Coast” online, visit www.montereycountyweekly.com/music.