Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Interview Concluded

AG: What I’m trying to figure (out) now is that [Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”] something you heard later? much later?

JE: I heard that at the same time, when I first started listening to..Woody’s music.

AG: Did you run into Guthrie (himself) at some point or other?

JE: I met Woody in Brooklyn. He was living in Coney Island.

AG: What year was that?

JE: Well, that was in ’51

AG: So right straight off you went..

JE: Yeah

AG: ..to look him up, or what?

JE: Well, Tom Paley knew him. Did you know Tom? I don’t know. Tom is a guitar player that used to play around Washington Square Park.

Student: Can you speak up?

JE: Yeah, I keep thinking this (here) microphone is attatched to a P.A. system. That’s why I can’t take it seriously. I mean, it throws me off. Singing into the microphone, I’m whispering into the microphone, which is part of mike-style. It took me a long time to learn it. It’s rock n roll mike-ing and it has to do with practically swallowing the microphone and then you don’t even have to put out any energy and you hear it real good ’cause it’s like a million dollars worth of electricity coming through.

AG: In a natural tone of voice.

JE: Yeah.

AG: Very neutral. A natural tone of voice so you don’t have to shout

JE: I’m sorry, Were you having a hard time hearing back there?

Student: Kind of

JE: Oh well. My apologies.Brooklyn

AG: Just when you were talking to eternity

JE: Howdy eternity!

AG: Okay, we’re back in Brooklyn

JE: Oh, Woody was living there with his family.

AG: In what borough?

JE: He had been living on a street called Mermaid Avenue, which is a joke – I doubt if a mermaid ever was there! Last time I saw Mermaid Avenue I wandered ashore from the Sloop Clearwater into three solid blocks of broken glass, all over the streets! Woody moved out of his little teeny Mermaid Avenue apartment, which I never got to see. He moved into a larger and more commodious apartment at a place called Beach Haven Apartments, (or Bitch Heaven, as Woody called it!). And he had a larger, more comfortable place there, which was on the ground floor, easy access, and had a back yard.

AG: Was Arlo born by then?

JE: He was four years old then.

AG: Living there?

JE: They were living there and that’s where I first met them in ’51.

AG: How did you meet him? The first time

JE: I called him up on the phone. Tom has given me Woody’s phone number and said he was a friendly guy and said “Just call him up”, ’cause they were going to have a guitar session  over at Woody’s house one night, but it was going to be too crowded. There were twelve people and there was just room for twelve people in the apartment. So I called up Woody the next day and said I’d heard his records and liked his music and I’d been playing the guitar myself for about three years and busking around in saloons and bars and truck-stops, and he said that I oughta come by some day. He didn’t even say to call, he just said “drop around”, you know, real Oklahoma kind of friendly – but he said, “don’t come today ’cause I got a belly-ache”. And, sure enough, next day, I called up again, and he was in the hospital with a ruptured appendix. So I couldn’t see him for a few days and I talked to his wife and she said, “Don’t go and see him now because he’s all doped up”, you know, from the operation. So about three or four days later I went by and visited him in the hospital and played him a couple of tunes on the guitar, but it was very hard to do and embarrassing and everything because there were all these sick people all around and you didn’t want to make a lot of noise.

AG: What did you play him?

JE: I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t think I actually played him a whole song all the way through. I just diddled on the guitar because I was too embarrassed by all of the commotion that was going on with all these patients getting wheeled in and out, and just played a few little half-assed chords on the guitar, and he sort of mumbled and moaned and he wasn’t in good shape at all. But he told me to go across the street (right across the street was his apartment, he was in the hospital right across the road from the apartment) and said (that) I can look out the window and see his kids playing in the back yard. Sure enough, I looked out the window, and there was little Arlo and Puffy and Jody playing in the back yard. So I went over and said hello to his wife and introduced myself, and she was very friendly and showed me some of the books and records and stuff and things that Woody made

AG: Books? His writings?

JE: Well, some of his books that he wrote and some of just the bookshelf and books that he’d been reading.

AG: Did he have the Child Ballads ?

JE: No

AG: Did he have a collection of ancient stuff,or was he..

JE: No, he wasn’t into that. I don’t think he read much of that stuff

AG: So all his learning was oral

JE: He didn’t have any of those Child Ballads around, certainly. He had (Alan) Lomax’s book, “cause he knew Lomax and had done radio shows and interviews with Lomax and he had some of Lomax’s books

AG: Lomax had a show on station WNYC in the ‘40’s, I think, and I think he had Guthrie on.

JE: I heard some of those original radio programs

AG: I used to listen to them when I was in high school.

JE:..on 12-inch, 78 rpm discs that Woody had of those radio programs they did during the war. Lead Belly was on and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.. V discs..

AG: Lead Belly was living on East 10th Street..the next house to mine, where I was living over the last ten years..

JE: on East 10th, yeah..

AG: Just between…

JE: Yeah, 414 East 10th  

AG: And I lived at 408.

JE: I didn’t know that. I’ll be danged!

AG: There’s an old black guy…

JE: I knew someone else who lived there…

AG: …that hung around with him..that stayed with him there, that’s still around on East 10th Street

JE: Golly gee!.. I was doing a tv show in California one day, one hot day, I was there with (this friend), and we were in the cafeteria and it was practically empty and we noticed two plainclothesmen there and we say down and we were eating our food and this plainclothes policeman came over and said, “Is your name Elliott?”, and I said, “Yes”, and he says, “Jack?”, and I say, “Uh-huh”, and he takes out his wallet and flashes me his badge, and says, “Mike Quinn, LAPD, Jack, I’ve got all your records”. And I thought, “Golly dang!” – I just about had a heart-attack! He used to live next door to Lead Belly on East 10th Street.

AG: Quinn?

JE: Yeah. Did you know him? Mike Quinn. He was a cop in New York and he was with LAPD. This is about two years ago. And he was just getting married and going to Mendicino for his honeymoon. I wasn’t able to be there at the time.

AG: He knew about Lead Belly?

JE: Yeah, he was a big friend of Lead Belly’s. He was his next-door-neighbor and used to hang out at Lead Belly’s house. And he told me all these stories about Lead Belly.

AG: So what was the next encounter with Guthrie?

JE: Oh well, I visited him in the hospital three days in a row there but there wasn’t much communication at that time. He was in pretty bad shape from that sickness so I took off to the West Coast and I had one song of Woody’s that I (had) learned and memorized off a record. It was “Hard Travelin’ “ and I sang that in every bar on Route 40, going across country. And I’d bummed around the West Coast for about three months, visiting sailing ships and ranches and things, and got into working on that Marine Museum in San Francisco, and then I went back to New York, called up Woody again, about three months later.Now..

AG: Now when was this?

JE: “51.. around about March or April of ’51. He said he was playing at a house party at 120 University Place and why didn’t I come over and bring my guitar? So I did. I found Woody in the back room, rehearsing. And there were about three or four people hanging around and they would ask him for requests. And I remember some girl asked him if he would play “The Blue Tail Fly”, and he said, “That’s a Burl Ives song. I get fifteen cents extra for Burl Ives songs” – He had a running feud with Burl Ives for years and he used to have contests to see who could sing the most songs, you know, round-table drag-out all-night singing contests.

AG: Burl Ives was at that point an authentic folk singer, wasn’t he?

JE: He’d been singing for a long time and Burl had been making a big commercial success out of it because he would sing more of the pretty ones, whereas Woody would sing everything straight-out, natural, honest, and he had all his political stuff, which held him back a lot, as far as the networks were concerned. He was forbidden to sing a lot of his more outspoken songs on television, and they’d say, “Well, we’d like to have you on our show, Mr. Guthrie, but you’ve got to take these words out of this song and you’ve got to take that chorus out, and so forth, “cause it runs counter to our political views on this show”.

AG: It’s their political views and he has no way of answering it, so you shouldn’t…

JE: Anyway, he refused it, to change his music, and so he’d just refuse to go on the show and it cut into his own pocket-book

AG: So who was his teacher?

JE: Well Uncle Jeff Guthrie taught him how to play the guitar. Jeff lives in Denver here. He used to be a square-dance fiddler and chief-of-police in a small town in New Mexico. Later became a highway-patrolman here in Colorado. Sweet old man. He’s about 90 years old, Very ill now.

AG:  Still alive?

JE: Last I heard he was still alive.

AG: In Denver?

JE: I visited Uncle Jeff when his wife was still alive and she was real sick at the time,,and passed away later.

AG: So he’s sort of (the) root guru of American folk music

JE: Well, he’s one of them, I guess. Also Jeff Guthrie is one of the finest fiddle players that ever lived in this country, and beat Eck Robertson in a fiddle contest. Eck Robinson, Woody told me, was the finest fiddler in America, ever.

AG: Where is he from?

JE: I think he’s from Oklahoma too, or Missouri, I can’t remember

AG: Now did Jeff Guthrie teach him words too as well as the instrument?

JE: I guess he taught him songs too. I don’t know about that. He taught him how to play the guitar. This took place to Pampa, Texas. Woody grew up in Oklahoma and he moved to Pampa, Texas, when he was an early teenager. (He) got dusted out of Oklahoma. Mother got sick and died in an insane asylum, with that Huntington’s (chorea), and then Woody took off from Texas and headed out to California, looking for a rich aunt that lived out there, and got to sleep under our best bridges, and travelled all up and down California. Never got to see the aunt but got to travelling around with a lot of migratory workers who were looking for work all up and down California, picking fruit and stuff, and doing odd jobs in the Great Dust Bowl and Depression of  1929-30-31-32-33

AG: Did he, or you..or is there anybody that you know in the folk tradition.. have they ever gone back and looked up at the old English versions and traced the history of ballads? Where are the scholars?

JE: I went to England, personally, you know. Not in any great quest of knowledge, but I was just wanting to bum around and look over the world a little bit, and I was singing on street corners, and found that there were a lot of fans of Woody and Lead Belly in England, and the kids over there were really anxious to hear about..everything about Woody and Lead Belly, so I got a lot of jobs singing in nightclubs, and, well, they weren’t nightclubs, they were little pubs..

AG: ’61?

JE: No, that was 1955, I came back in ’61.

AG: You were over there from ’55 to ’61?

JE: Yeah. ‘55 to ’61.

AG: So when did we meet? ’58?

JE: I met you in ’53.

AG: No, in Europe, in Europe, I mean.

JE: I guess it was.

AG: ’57? ’58?

JE: I can’t remember what year exactly.

AG: (I think it was in Paris with) (William) Burroughs and Gregory (Corso)

JE: Yeah. And we did a reading in that Mistral Bookstore (Shakespeare  & Co). In fact, you were the one that put me up to it. I never would have had the nerve.

AG: You read and you played

JE: Well I did both. It was sort of a combination. Remember? I had a cold and I was laying up in my hotel-room there with June, and she was kind of passing me the tea and the Vitamin C and I was sitting up there reading Jack Kerouac’s book, which had just come out, On The Road. And Jack had read me the whole book back in Bleecker Street about three years before that, and I was so excited to be reading this book and the words that I’d heard read personally, by the author himself, who himself, I think was influenced by Woody,, too (in style, certainly).

AG: He knew? didn’t know? Guthrie. That’s something I don’t know.

JE: I think he’d read Bound For Glory<

AG: Yeah, I always wondered about that. The prose is a lot alike actually, the excitement of the prose.

JE: Yeah, and the style of the…

AG (to class): Have you ever read Guthrie’s Bound For Glory?

JE: …rough-shod style.

AG: Raise your hands if you have. It’s a really interesting poetic prose, prose-poetry. Fantastic energy. If you like Kerouac’s prose style, then Guthrie’s is earlier, I guess, earlier than Kerouac’s

JE: Yeah, Woody wrote that Bound For Glory in 1944, and I remember Jack – this is an actual quote, and one of the few things I can actually remember verbatim from Jack – saying, “I love the language of bums”.

AG: Yeah, that was Okie talk. Okie bum talk under the bridges was his speciality.

JE: Yeah, he picked up on it and he wrote it down and that’s what Woody was doing too. And that was what made Kerouac so beautiful, I think – his way of saying those words and telling those stories with that bum talk rhythm.

AG: How did you get him to read On The Road to you?

JE: Oh, he came by. I was sitting in bed reading it and everybody was coming by and visiting and I’d be reading.

AG: No, I mean, the original manuscript.

JE: Oh, Kerouac, he came by, you know, at 330-or-something Bleecker Street there..

AG: Where Helen…

JE: At Helen’s place. And he used to come by and visit a lot, and one day he brought the whole manuscript with him and he just sat down on the floor and started reading it to us, and we sat on the floor too, and we’d be drinking wine, and…

AG: Was Helen there?

JE:  Well, yeah, Helen and me and the boys and I don’t know who else. Not too many, just the family (and I think you might have been there too, but I don’t know at that particular time). It was a three-day stint. Three straight days of reading that 500-page typewritten manuscript of On The Road, and then, three years later, I’m reading through Italy and Switzerland on a motor-scooter and I saw Kerouac’s picture in a paper and it was a story about On The Road. It had come out. I thought.”Wowie! this is fantastic! Look at that! I know him!”. I got to Paris right after that, or within a month or so. We were riding on a Vespa. It must have taken us a month to get to Italy from Paris. I know we rode over the Alps in a blizzard going about fifteen-miles-an-hour.

AG: Back to Brooklyn. What I was interested in was the development of your song-mind history. Song-mind history. So ’51…

JE: So there was Woody and he was living there in Brooklyn and I went by and I got together with him at that party where he was charging fifteen cents extra to sing Burl Ives tunes, rehearsing back stage. We got singing together in the thing and I sang “Hard Travellin'” with Woody, and I could remember the words better than he did, and, in fact, he couldn’t remember hardly any of the words, (and) he kept fumbling around and stumbling around and I’d feed him the lines and we sang together, and I backed him up, and he liked the way I played the guitar, and even gave me a ride back out to Brooklyn.

AG (to class): Does anybody here know that song? Hard Travellin’?  How many here know it?  Hardly anybody. Hardly anybody’s heard it.

JE: Would you like to hear it?

Students: Yeah

JE: It was a great song. It was my favorite song. (to Mike Burton) Do you..

Mike Burton: Well, you do it better than me.

JE: Yeah, I’m going on too long anyway, I think. It’s almost time for Mike to do a little something. I don’t want to run over time. But I’ll tell you, just to make it a little short, because, I sang this song so many millions of times, that I’m really tired of it, and it is a great song, but I don’t think I can do it justice anymore. I sang it with all my heart and soul about twelve million times, and then just burnt out on it. You dig? So I’ll just sing the first verse and I’ll recite the rest of it to you.. [Jack Elliott sings all seven verses of Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin”” – “I been doing some hard travelin’/ I thought you know’d..”]

AG: That’s the whole thing?

JE: That’ the whole thing.

AG: Thank you.

JE: Thank you.

AG: It’s full of details, and full of perfect details.

JE: Wanna hear one more?

AG: Yeah

JE: Here’s one that.. you don’t have to sing it, it’s a talkin’ blues, but for detail and sheer salt-water..

AG: Yeah, I’ve been teaching detail

JE: Oh. Here’s one for detail that I’ve always loved and never did get tired of. It was a song about Woody’s experience in the Merchant Marine during World War II, shipping out in these Liberty ships and convoys carrying TNT across the ocean to places like Murmansk, Russia and Sicily. He had his buddy, Cisco Houston traveling with him and they got torpedoed a couple of times and sunk, and each time he managed to get the guitar, fiddle, harmonica and everything, bones, into the lifeboat, and they were playing music in the lifeboat while the ship was sinking. And he had a fiddle. (And) he wrote on the fiddle all kinds of remarks and things, and it said, “Woody Guthrie, S.S. William B Floyd, S.S. Sea Porpoise, 1944, drunk once, sunk twice” (which, in itself, is a poem, I guess).

AG: What time is it?

Students: 8.20

AG: I’d like to hear Mike (Burton) sing something too

JE: Please. I’ll recommend that to you. If you ever get a chance to hear a record of it – “The Talkin’ Sailor”, a talkin’ blues by Woody Guthrie…

AG: Do we have time for both?.

JE:.. and thank you very much.

AG: Do we have time for both? We’ve gotta get out of here..

JE: You do have, or are you asking me..

AG: …8.30

JE:… or telling me. I don’t know.

AG: Because I don’t know how long the song…

JE: I’ve got time. I got all the time in the world, I guess.

AG: Well, we got this 8.30 thing upstairs..

JE: Oh

AG: We’re supposed to be there Mike? Where’d he go? to the bathroom?

Students: Yes

JE: Well, if you like, I’ll just recite it real fast.

AG: Yeah, do it

JE: Quicker…“The Talkin’ Sailor” [Jack Elliott recites Woody Guthrie’s talkin’ blues, accompanying himself on guitar – “In bed with my woman just singing the blues/ And I heard the radio a-telling the news…”]

AG: Is that Guthrie?  that Guthrie?

JE: That was Woody Guthrie

AG: Well, thank you, really terrific. We’re gonna pack up (now) and go upstairs

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