Rambling Jack Elliott could not have earned himself a more fitting nickname. Lord, he was born a ramblin’ man, but a man who rambles too much is a man that you can’t pin down. He was a folk singer, a man whose soul could whip up the most heartfelt music you ever heard, yet he never seems to have had a commitment to anything. For most of his life he seemed to be chasing the breeze, going with the flow, and ramblin’ in a direction no one could quite follow.
The documentary “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” is very much about what kept his career from taking off. Directed and narrated by his daughter Aiyana – the product of his fourth marriage – the film is a personal essay mostly from her point of view about what it was like growing up the child of a man who never seemed to have an organized thought in mind. In his music, as in life he rambled and rambled and rambled.
In the 50s and early 60s he came up alongside two men who define the music of their generation: Woody Guthrie and a budding young singer named Robert Allen Zimmerman, who would soon be known to all the world as Bob Dylan. He knew them both well, but somehow those two had a better plan in life and in their music. During a tribute concert for Guthrie following his death in 1967, Dylan was a headliner but Elliott was left off the program. As time went on, he would watch both men become legends, while he became a footnote, seen only as a meager thread between the end of Guthrie and the beginning of Dylan. Reading a review of his own career, Elliott – still alive at 82 – blows the paper a satisfied raspberry.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1931 as Elliott Charles Adnopoz, a doctor’s son who ran away from home at an early age to join up with the rodeo. He had a deep passion for the cowboy life and, despite his origins made his own image as the kind of folk singer whose music was the cry of the wounded. He rambled from one thing to the next and just kept right on rambling. That was the problem, the rambles kept him from finding a foothold in the industry. Late in the film, one of his managers laments that “I respected his talent, but he was too disorganized.” We can see that early on in a clip from his appearance on The Johnny Cash Show as Elliott befuddles his fellow players – and even Cash himself – as he can’t quite decide on which key to begin.
It might be easy to simply write off The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack as a simple talking-head documentary, but I think there’s more to it then that. It is the story of a man whose mind never seemed fixated on the important goals that most of us set for ourselves. He was something of a mystery and a psychological curiosity. What went on in his mind is a question nobody seems able to answer. It’s hard to know where to stand with this documentary because you become so fixated on the fact that it was Elliott that killed his own career. He rambled on and rambled on, never finding a place for himself. By the end, you wonder if he liked frustrating those around him, or if his mind blew from one thing to the next just like his music.