Rambling Jack Elliott could not have earned himself a more fitting nickname. Lord, he was born a rambling 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.
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 – from 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 Woody Guthrie and a budding young singer named Robert Allen Zimmerman (who you know 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’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.