AG: Jack (Elliott) here, well, where did you start? What I was interested in getting was some kind of history of the development of American folk poem ballad song. Jack is one of the inheritors of the lineage of Woody Guthrie. [Allen turns to Mike Burton] – I guess you are too, Mike? As directly as Jack?
Mike Burton: Not as directly as Jack
AG: Through Jack?
Mike Burton: Through Jack
AG: (to Jack Elliott) Yeah, I guess the best thing is, where did you begin playing, and where did you first learn ballads and song?
Jack Elliott: Well, I was born in New York City, you know, in Brooklyn, but there wasn’t much scenery around there so I became fascinated with trucks and the first job I ever had was loading and unloading lumber trucks and got to travelling around in these lumber trucks all over Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, New Jersey and Staten Island.
AG: But you’re a New York cowboy.
JE: ..unloading lumber, and I got to noticing all these other trucks (because you’re sitting at a truck level, you know, and you’re only dealing with the other truckers), and we used to stop in truck stops, and I noticed trucks from all over the world, and I got sort of the traveling bug (and) I’ve been going to rodeos since I was nine years old at Madison Square Garden and just warching…
AG: Where were you born?
JE: I was born in Brooklyn, yeah.
AG : Where?
JE: Near Linden Boulevard and Rogers Avenue, a little street called Martense Street. You might not have heard of it. It might not be there anymore. I’ve often said that if they’d ever bomb the place I would like to be the pilot or the bombardier. I don’t want you to think that I’m a violent person or anything, I’m not. I just don’t like it there. I wanted to be a cowboy. This cowboy came riding down the street one day. I used to wake up early morning for school and the trick I had for getting out of bed, my alarm clock, in fact, was the milk-wagon (they used to have gorse-drawn milk-wagons) and one day I heard a horse going down Linden Boulevard with no wagon and I jumped up like a flash. I missed those wagon-wheels, and, sure enough, it was a real live cowboy riding down Linden Boulevard. And I jumped on my bike, got dressed, and road down Linden Boulevard.
AG: In that order!
JE:..and I rode alongside that cowboy for about five miles, asking him all sorts of questions you know, (like) how did he get there? And where did he come from? and stuff, and he was telling me a lot of stories about how he’d come from Montana and he was entered in the bronc(o) riding in Madison Square Garden. Well, that suited right in there with my plans..
AG: What was he doing on Linden Boulevard?
JE: He was traveling from one stable at Prospect Park heading from another stable in Long Island, and, actually, he was a Long Island cowboy! He was filling me full of lies! – but he played guitar!. I ran away from home and found my way out to this stable where he kept his horse, out in Long Island, and there he was (and he) and another rodeo cowboy, Mike, were hanging out, picking guitars, singing. They had electrified guitars and they were singing all these songs like “Pins and Needles In My Heart” and… (“hillbilly songs”, we called them). I became fascinated with this music, and I had an old guitar that I’d had as a kid, that I’d never played on
AG: How old were you at this point?
JE: I was about fifteen. Yeah, fourteen-and-a-half.
AG: Before that, what were your daydreams?
JE: Before that I was going to run away to sea and sail around the world in a square-rigger! I was a little bit behind my time! – I was born about a hundred years too late, you see, I should have told you that right off! Most of my friends and playmates were about 80 to 90 years old. I didn’t dig too much the kids of my own age and didn’t have too much in common with them somehow, but I found these old square-rigger sailors that had been around Cape Horn and I got to where I could spot one from across the street. I used to hang out with them and get them to tell stories about Cape Horn. And I was going to be a sailor in the Merchant Marine. My next-door-neighbor was a harbor pilot, raised in Cape Cod, old Captain Hinckley, and he started out in a whaler, and he was teaching me all about square-rigged sailing vessels and preparing me for a career as a Merchant Marine deck officer. And then I met old Mr Erickson, the sail-maker, and I spent a year hanging around in his shop, afternoons after high school and when I was a freshman in high school…
AG: Twelve? Thirteen?
JE: I was fourteen, I think – or fifteen. Anyway I ran away from home at that time and went out and hung out with those cowboys, and I went back home the next day, but it was a big adventure and it sort of twisted my head forever. I started practicing on the guitar a little bit, and then, later on, I ran away from home again, and ended up joining a rodeo company down in Washington DC – the J.E. Ranch Rodeo, Colonel Jim Eskew’s Rodeo, and I got a job on that outfit grooming horses and feeding bulls and bare-back horses and all those broncs and stuff..
AG: So you actually had experience with horses?
JE: Yeah, before I got into guitar picking. I was a part-time cowboy there for a litte short while. Then I went back home again after about three months disappearance and finished up high school (which was a total bore!) and I was singing cowboy songs on the front stoop of the high school. They had a Folklore Club, but it was mostly girls and they sang songs like all those Burl Ives songs, you know“Alas my love you do me wrong/ To cast me off discourteously, kah-dah, kah-dah, kah-dah, kah-dah”, and I didn’t dig that at all. There wasn’t enough flavor to it for me. It wasn’t outdoors enough for me.So I just sang outside on the stoop and they sang in their classrooms. I managed to graduate high school, I don’t know how or why, but then I even went on to college for a while, and I would have been a good student but I got to fooling around in some sailboats when I was supposed to be studying. I was out on the Thames River running over the top of submarines in a 26-foot Monomy and flunked out of there and started hitting the road with my guitar.
The first real good guitar picking and singing that I ever heard was in..when I was in rodeo and there were three or four cowboys there that sang and played guitars and this was the real thing. One old clown who may still be alive, his name was Framer Rodgers, he came from Tyler, Texas, and his son Jimmy Rodgers is picking and singing and songwriting now.
AG: The great Jimmy Rogers?
AG: What was the first song?
JE: First song I ever heard was that one about “Stay all night, stay a little longer/dance all night, dance a little longer/ pull off your coat, toss it in the corner/ don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer”. Old Framer sang that one. “You ought to see my Blue Eyed Sally/ lives right down in the Shin Bone Alley/ number on the gate and the number on the door/, and the house right over is a grocery store/ Stay all night, stay a little longer/ dance all night, dance a little longer…” Etcetera (etcetera)..
AG: Was that the first song you actually ever picked up on?
JE: just thinking of it now,the first song I ever learned and played on the guitar was “ The Red River Valley”
AG: As a high school student?
JE; Oh no, I did that at home. I had an old book of cowboy songs and it had the chords in there – G, C & D, and I started playing the guitar and I had a diagram of where you put your fingers on the neck, you know.
AG: And you practiced “Red River Valley”
JE: I practiced on that thing in the kitchen, 5 o’clock in the morning, for about six months before I let anybody hear me
AG: That’s just G, C & D?
JE; Uh-huh – G, C & D
AG: I can do those chords
JE: It’s easy and it’s a real nice pretty old song.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Interview continues here