A Portrait Of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott


MAGNET’s Mitch Myers unearths a vintage drawing of Ramblin’ Jack and revives Shel Silverstein’s liner notes from innovative 1964 album Jack Elliott

There’s been an inordinate amount of words devoted to Rambin’ Jack Elliott in the last seven decades. No wonder, as he’s the living embodiment of 20th-century Americana, connecting the dots between the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson and Nico. Rather than repeating his many virtues and lifelong eccentricities, we’re going to celebrate everybody’s favorite folk hero by unveiling a forgotten portrait of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

I discovered this sketch among the many fascinating artifacts at the Shel Silverstein Archive, and it turns out that Jack drew the darn thing himself and Shel had kept it safe for decades. I hasten to add that Shel and Jack were friendly back then, as evidenced by Shel’s penetrating liner notes for Jack Elliott, Ramblin’ Jack’s 1964 album on Vanguard Records.

Elliott already had a number of records already under his belt, and his debut for Vanguard included now-familiar songs like “House Of The Rising Sun,” one tune written by Jack’s old running buddy Derroll Adams (“Portland Town”) and, of course, one by his idol, Woody Guthrie (the classic “1913 Massacre”). For the LP, Elliott was joined by musicians including bassist Bill Lee (Spike’s dad), pickers Erik Darling, John Herald and Eric Weissberg, folkie duo Ian & Sylvia and John Hammond Jr. and Bob Dylan (under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse), who both added harmonica.

But instead of further editorializing on my part, consider Shel Silverstein’s liner notes found on the back of the old Jack Elliott album. You might learn a little more about Ramblin’ Jack, and we’ve curated the music for you, too, so enjoy:

Now this album is supposed to be the best of Jack Elliott and maybe it is a very good album but it certainly isn’t the best of Jack Elliott. The best of Jack Elliott is Jack Elliott—I don’t mean the things he has to say when you meet him ’cause Jack loves to talk about square riggers which he knows a little about and Mack trucks which he knows a lot about and line drawing which he knows almost nothing about or other things that will bore the hell out of you. Jack speaks very slowly and it takes him a long time to tell a boring story which only makes it twice as bad—but the best part of Jack Elliott is watching him—I first met Jack when he was in Rome in 1957. I used to eat in a cheap restaurant called Taverna Margutta which is on the Via Margutta which is one block from the Piazza D’Espagna. Joe Fazzio and Franco the Guitar Player and Wally King the Ex-Piano player and myself used to hang out there almost every night along with some Italian dentist but I don’t remember his name. And we’d sit and booze it up so then the food wouldn’t taste so bad and then we’d go down to the Trevi Fountain and try to pick up English girl tourists who were making wishes and throwing those idiotic coins in the fountain. The Margutta was supposed to be an artists’ restaurant but I never saw any artist hang out there. Artists generally have to find a cheaper place in a so called artists’ hang out.

Anyway, I came out of there one night and I was pretty bombed because I was singing out loud and I fell right into this table outside where this guy and this girl were sitting and they were both wearing those thick grey English turtle neck sweaters and I figured they were English or German but the guy just asked me if I knew Wabash Cannon Ball and so I sat down and we sang Wabash Cannon Ball and that was Jack Elliott and we’ve been friends ever since. But, I can’t say that it has been a particularly relaxing friendship. 

Now, the girl at the table was June Elliott who was Jack’s wife at the time but she wasn’t really just Jack’s wife—she was his everything—his agent, general business and personal manager, and his hat passer, the motor scooter navigator. Now this is no easy task even for a girl like June who is a pretty tough cookie because Jack is the kind of guy who will take an hour and a half to put on his pants after he has one leg on and if he can’t find his pants it might take a whole weekend so it was June’s job to tell him where his pants were and his boots and dust off his cowboy hat because Jack says that one thing about a real cowboy is that he never lets his hat get dusty and every night we’d make the rounds of the different restaurants and maybe go over to the Via Veneto and go down to Brick Tops or some place like that and June would make sure Jack had his finger picks and that he knew what songs he was going to sing and that his hair was combed and that his fly was zipped up and while he was singing she would just sit and hold an extra set of strings in case he broke one and after he got through she would pass the hat around and then we’d go somewhere to eat and she would portion out the money—so much for supper—so much for Petrol—so much for heels for Jack’s boots—they generally slept on somebody’s floor so they didn’t have to worry too much about rent.

Now, at this time they were staying with a family named McInytre and they were Americans and he had a job with the Embassy or something like that and they let Jack and June stay at their house and in return for this Jack would entertain at Mrs. McIntyre’s parties and sing songs for the birthday parties for the McIntyre’s kids and so forth. One of the kids was a little boy and the boy had a little small model square rigger and Jack had promised he would rig the boat for him but he never seemed to get around to it. I had been pretty impressed with Jack’s singing, especially songs like San Francisco Bay and I Got a Woman which I had never heard before and which he told me was sung by a guy named Ray Charles who I had never even heard of because I had been out of the country for a long time. Anyway, I decided to buy a guitar because I felt it would be less lonely having a guitar. So I got myself this six string inlaid banjo thing which has about the worst sound you have ever heard and I took it up to Jack to tune it for me and write me down a few chords. It didn’t have a case. I had to get over to Jack’s in a  hurry that night because in a few hours he and June were leaving for Greece or Turkey and when I got there they were in their typical state of confusion. June was packing and Jack was alternating between fixing his boot and practicing some new run on this guitar. Jack treats his guitar like a human being and June told me when they first got married Jack wanted to keep the guitar in bed with them because that was the way he was used to sleeping but she finally convinced him to put it in the case which probably disillusioned him a lot about marriage. Anyway, June kept screaming at Jack to hurry and Jack kept saying he couldn’t find something or another and I brought him a drawing pad as a going away present but June said it was too big and he couldn’t carry it on the scooter and Jack said he wanted it and I said it was only 9 x 12 and June said hurry up and pack because they were going to miss the boat and I kept telling Jack to write down the C chord and Jack didn’t know exactly what a C chord was until he looked it up on his fingers so he had to pick up the guitar and he remembered he hadn’t finished rigging the boat for the McIntyre kid and started looking around for his thread and June started screaming they were going to miss the boat and I asked Jack to write down an F chord and June screamed that they only had an hour to get the boat and it would take at least six hours to rig the boat and they had to leave right now and Jack screamed that he had to rig the boat and June screamed that he couldn’t rig the boat and Jack stood up and he clenched his fists and squinted his eyes and he was practically crying and he said I never finished anything in my whole life.”

I could explain this but I hope I don’t have to. 

A couple of years later I saw them in New York for about a week and I didn’t see Jack again until about another year later. Then one day he came over to my house and he was wearing his black cowboy hat which he always wore and that sheepskin jacket that he loves and he was carrying his guitar and he had some old friend of his with him. He told me June was in Japan doing some work in the movies and he had gotten a couple of letters from her and he wanted me to read them. I saw that they were in English but he said he wanted me to translate them but they were in English but he wanted to get my opinion on them and what they meant. So the first letter said Dear Jack, what’s the news about the divorce, please take care of it as soon as possible, signed June and I said he didn’t need a translation on that one, he said read the second one—Jack exclamation point where the hell is that divorce, I want it now exclamation point, signed June,—so I said to Jack I don’t think you need any translation of these letters. She wants a divorce. And Jack said you’re obviously missing the whole point ’cause if you look close you’ll see that in the first letter she says, dear Jack’ which means she still cares about me and with that he put on his hat and picked up his guitar and he and his friend walked out, probably looking for someone who could give him a better translation.

Jack suffered with this whole scene for a while and then finally he met Patti and I guess she took over the duties of hat dusting and gasoline buying but by now he was buying gasoline for a second hand telephone service truck which he still drives around and they were having a pretty good time until they decided to get married. I was best man at the wedding which I guess was last summer and Jack and Patti and me and a girl named Sandy who was maid of honor we all piled into a taxi and went down to City Hall and it was raining and it was a very nice wedding because I had never seen a civil service ceremony before and there was no bull about it and no mumbo jumbo, they just tell you you are married and that’s it and the next thing you know you are back outside in the rain again. Anyway, the price was four bucks and I said I would pick up the tab because I figured I had never treated anybody to a wedding before so I picked up the tab and I laid down the four bucks but I guess it wasn’t a very good investment because about three months later Jack rang my bell and he was wearing his cowboy hat and that sheepskin jacket and he was carrying his guitar and had an old friend with him and he tells me he has a letter that he wants me to translate. So that’s the way it goes with Jack Elliott and he is still wearing the black cowboy hat and sheepskin jacket and I don’t know what girl is his personal manager right now but he’s still riding around in that old telephone service truck and I hope you enjoy this record. 

Shel Silverstein