Review: Film Shows Ramblin' Jack Elliott Through His Daughter's Eyes

Documentary falls short of detailing his vast musical influence but is a warm portrait of an intriguing artist and his life.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the protégé of the older and the mentor of the younger.

But his life on the road left him little time to spend with his daughter, Aiyana, who has taken her revenge by filming a documentary on her still-performing father.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," her look at her father's life on the road, includes interviews with a bunch of his folkie friends from Greenwich Village in the '60s — Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Kinky Friedman and Kris Kristofferson — as well as with her mother and some of Elliott's other wives.

Aiyana, now 31, says in the film that one of her earliest memories is going out on the road at age 6 in a mobile home for Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review tour, with her father and Dylan taking turns driving. But in the years since, her father has been just a blur who visits her once in a while between tours.

The movie is deadpan hilarious — a musical "Roger & Me" that covers the same ground as Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" as Aiyana pursues that elusive conversation with her father.

She tells of how, after taking her to an annual "Cowboy Poets" convention he loves, they returned to their Mendocino, Calif., home. But after driving around the back streets awhile, Elliott is forced to admit he can't remember where the house is.

Ramblin' In Words And Travels

Elliott seems plenty talkative onstage, though, and owes his nickname, according to Kristofferson, to that characteristic. The film contains plenty of examples of both his songs and his enchanting stage patter.

Highlights include his version of Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" (RealAudio excerpt), Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," a duet with folk/blues legend Odetta on "900 Miles," and Woody Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," which Elliott performed at a Carnegie Hall tribute after Guthrie's death in 1967.

The movie opens with Jack Elliott in a field of high grass, with his daughter narrating and his song "Ramblin' Blues" playing in the background. Then the action switches to a 1969 appearance on the "Johnny Cash Show," where the host says Elliott "has got a song and a friend for every mile behind him."

But even Johnny Cash seems a bit flustered as Elliott takes his time warming up on live TV before they launch into "Take Me Home" (RealAudio excerpt). In a later clip his own daughter tells him to "play the song already!" as she's filming a 1999 performance of "Car Song" (RealAudio excerpt).

Elliott's own recording career never amounted to much; in fact, he boycotted the recording studio completely from 1976 to 1995. His was a career spent on the road, making enough money to drive on through the night to the next gig.

In the 1960s he would open for Jerry Garcia and sit in with the Grateful Dead, but besides Odetta's tie-dyed T-shirt, there's no reference in the movie to his influence on psychedelia.

Glaring Omissions

Elliott's role in inspiring young Brits such as Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, the future Animals, Donovan and others who studied his records or saw him perform — Mick Jagger, for instance, has credited catching Elliott busking in the London Underground as inspiring him to buy his first guitar — is similarly glossed over.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" is not a complete documentary because there are no interviews with Dylan or Cash or any of the British musicians influenced by Elliott's country guitar style.

And we get only a glimpse of how influential he was in the American folk-music scene, for instance, when in Greenwich Village in 1961 he gave Dylan, who was initially billed as "son of Jack Elliott," his start onstage.

The Guthries make up for that with their fond memories of how Elliott became Woody's protégé and tour buddy just as the elder man's health began to give out in the mid-'50s. To Arlo and Nora Guthrie, he was like an uncle who always was full of stories when he lived with them in Queens, N.Y.

When Elliott got back to New York in 1961, he went to visit Guthrie at a New Jersey hospital and met a 19-year-old Dylan, who was on a pilgrimage from Minnesota to visit his idol. Elliott brought Dylan into the folk scene in Greenwich Village and showed him some of the guitar tricks that Woody was too ill to demonstrate.

Elliott played guitar and sang background at Dylan's Folk City gigs, which the New York Times reviewed and which helped Dylan get his recording contract. When somebody told Elliott that Dylan was copying him, he dismissed it, saying, "He's the only one around here that sounds any good." But we get no information on what ended the collaboration — just that it ended bitterly.

Elliott's story needs to be told, but this movie isn't as complete as it could have been. It's more of an affectionate look by a daughter at a father who always was too busy performing to talk to her.