Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – The Jack Elliott Interview – 2

JE: “Red River Valley”…okay, “Red River Valley”, that was it. I had never even heard about Woody Guthrie until I got to hanging out with a bull-rider named Todd Fletcher (who also came from Brooklyn, but nobody knew about that). He started cowboying in Arizona and was riding in rodeos all around the country, and I travelled around with Todd for about six months, going to rodeos, and, any time we’d have any free time, just loafing around, why, Todd’d be singing and playing the guitar. He sang a lot of folk songs and a lot of cowboy songs and a lot of these Ernest Tubb songs. Ernest Tubb was real popular then.

AG: What year was this now?

JE: This is around 1948

AG: Yeah

JE: It was ’47 when I went with the rodeo, and then ’48, ’49 and ’50, I was most heavily into my rodeo craze.

AG: Because actually (William) Burroughs and..

JE: I met you in ’53.

AG: ..(Jack) Kerouac and I were hanging around Times Square on Eighth Avenue where all the rodeo bars were..

JE: Yeah, I remember those bars..

AG: In ’47, ’47-48

JE: Really?

AG: just about the time that you must have gone there.

JE: Yeah, I used to go there too. I might have seen you.

AG: Old men’s bars, hustling bars, rodeo bars and junkie bars.

JE: Great. There was one in the Belvedere. Remember  that one? the Belvedere Hotel (on) 49th Street?

AG: Huncke used to..

JE: Huncke?

AG: Yeah, Herbert Huncke, an old junkie around town.

JE: Oh yeah. I didn’t know Huncke.

AG: He turned Burroughs onto junk.

JE: Allen Eagerused to go around there too. He was into rodeo-ing a little bit too.

AG: So this is around 1950, that era.

JE: Well, 1948, 39, and ’50, yeah.
And then I met Woody in ’51, but I first heard about Woody in ’51, but I first heard about Woody from Todd Fletcher. He heard him on the radio and he told me about this great singer he’d heard on the radio.

AG (to class): How many here have heard of Woody Guthrie, or know who Woody Guthrie is? How many do not? Raise your hands, clearly, if you don’t. Well (to Jack Elliott), go on.

JE: Well, I never knew who Woody Guthrie was. I knew who Roy Acuff was, you know. One day, Todd said he’d heard Woody Guthrie on the radio and said he sounded so good, you know, and then I heard him myself the next day on the radio. He was a guest on some little radio station. WOV. Remember WOV? – Fred Robbins Nest ? – There was Woody and he was singing a song about Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw, that he’d written.,

AG: Yeah, so the outlaw song..

JE: ..and telling a story about..

AG (to Mike Burton): That’s your specialty also, Mike

Mike Burton: More or less.

AG: That genre of outlaw song

Mike Burton: I suppose so, What they call it now. Yeah..

AG: Can you play that Pretty Boy Floyd?

JE: Yeah, I guess I could.

AG: Because I’ve never heard you sing it..

JE: I’ve got to get my guitar

AG: Because that’s a classic American outlaw ballad

AG (to Mike Burton):  When did you two meet?

Mike Burton: Oh, quite a while ago. Just out of the New York days. The Lion’s Head

AG: Uh-huh. Mid-sixties?

JE:  Yeah, I think it was with Joanie (Baez) as a matter of fact, the first time, (in) The Kettle of Fish and…

AG: Yeah. You were singing that (song) on the Rolling Thunder (tour) sometimes.

JE: Yeah, I think I did. In Boston

AG: Yeah

JE: It went over real good too. That was one of the best shows we had. It rained that night.

AG: Actually, latter, I’m going to check back with the classic English outlaw ballads, but this is a classic American. Who wrote this? Guthrie?

JE: Woody Guthrie wrote this, but he told about how he’d been hitch-hiking and riding around the country on freight trains, travelling with his violin or fiddle, and the cops would stop him a lot and wan to look inside the fiddle case because they were looking for an outlaw called “Pretty Boy Floyd”  who was also travelling with a violin case. [Jack Elliott begins singing] – “If you gather round me children/ a story I will tell/ about Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw/ Oklahoma knew him well” – Of course, Woody came from Oklahoma himself and so did Pretty Boy Floyd and so he knew a lot about him, more than the average person reading about Pretty Boy Floyd in the newspapers. Everybody in Oklahoma knew Pretty Boy Floyd personally. If they didn’t actually know him personally, they felt like they did. I’ve met three or four people who actually knew Pretty Boy Floyd. I met two people who saw him get killed – one in Kansas, the other one in Texas. [Jack Elliott continues and sings all eleven verses of Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” – “Now it’s through this world I’ve rambled,/ I’ve seen lots of funny men/ Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen/ And as through your life you travel/ And as through your life you roam/ You won’t never see no outlaw/ Drive a family from their home”] – Thank you.

AG:  I’ve got a couple of academic questions. Get serious now. Something I’ve been thinking of. Where does the outlaw ballad or outlaw tradition come from? – or the outlaw ballad poem tradition, because I think there’s some in the old poetry books. As far as you know, for one thing, how old is that?

JE:  I don’t know. I don’t know how far back that goes, but I guess it goes back to Robin Hood and all them characters, and there’s always been songs about pirates and outlaws, and, in fact, the first record I ever made, commercially, was a record about pirates and outlaws. It was something that was on..what was that? Jac Holzman’s..?

AG: Elektra

JE: Elektra (records). It was about the third record they ever made. It was about 1953 and it was called “Bad Men, Heroes and Pirates”

AG: Yeah

JE: And this song was one of the ones I recorded on there, and Ed McCurdy was on there with a song about Dick Turpin, the highwayman, which is an old English…

AG: Yeah, that’s an English one


AG: But where did Guthrie get that information. In other words, is his interpretation of Pretty Boy Floyd historically accurate, or is that poetic license?

JE:  Well, he used a lot of poetic license…

AG: I’m thinking about the big argument about (Bob) Dylan’s version of “Joey”

JE: Oh “Joey”, yeah

AG: Did you see all those attacks on Dylan for…

JE: No, I haven’t

AG:  ..the guy in that little magazine, in the Village Voice, that had a big attack on Dylan for hero-izing and romanticizing Joey Gallo

Mike Burton: That’s the way it’s always been, tho’, you know.

AG: But is that the tradition? Did Pretty Boy Floyd…

JE: Yeah

AG:..actually send groceries to families on relief and did he actually leave a thousand-dollar bill under the plate?

JE: He was very well liked all over Oklahoma for being a very polite gentleman and never harming anybody. “Just folks”. He only killed cops. He was known as a cop-killer. He started out, I think in the actual story, just like it’s told in the first verse of the song, how he had this altercation with a sheriff

AG: A sheriff?

JE: He was parking his wagon in town and there was some kind of a “No Parking” sign, or “No Parking with Horse and Wagons on the Main Street”, and the sheriff was rude to him and spoke unkind words in front of Pretty Boy’s wife, and around Texas and Oklahoma, it’s almost a killing crime to say a foul word in front of ladies, right up to the present time. So this, as he says in there [Jack Elliott begins singing] – “Using vulgar words of anger/ And his wife she overheard”

AG: Yeah

JE: “Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain/ And the deputy grabbed his gun”, and he killed that cop in this fight, so after that he was forced to flee, and got a bad reputation, and every time somebody robbed a bank in Oklahoma they blamed it on him, but it wasn’t always him robbing the bank, for sure.

AG: Who told you that story?

JE: But he’d go around, and people would hide him out in their homes and feed him, (and he’d usually eat out in the back yard, he wouldn’t stay in the house, he’d eat out in the back yard with one eye on the plate, and one eye over the fence – he’s watching for the Law!)

AG: Where did you learn all this detail?

JE: Different people around. I’ve met five or six people that knew Pretty Boy. I said three or four earlier, it’s up to five or six now. Yeah, as I recall, people that knew Pretty Boy Floyd, and it’s just legend, I never read a word on a printed page,

AG: So this is oral transmission

JE..Yeah.. All I know…

AG: The point I’m trying to make about him is..

JE: All I know is that song that I learned off a record, and hanging out with Woody

Mike  Burton: (Stories come) with a rural environment

AG: Yeah

Mike Burton: I mean, they’re just..

JE: Stories get told..

Mike Burton: Frustrated people who are insane enough to act out the (unspoken) fantasies of the other people who are frustrated, so..you pick up on it..

AG (to Mike Burton): As far as you know, what is it? What’s the history of outlaw ballads? Do you have any background?

Mike Burton: I think it’s that. I think it’s like living out your fantasies. It’s like having to pay the rent and you don’t want to. It’s like having to go to the bank and borrow money and humiliate yourself and you don’t want to, and your fantasy is, “Why, that so-and-so, I’d like to walk in with a six-shooter and put it in his face and take it”

AG: So you’re thinking of it as just fantasy. The point I’m trying to prove is that it’s reality..

Mike Burton: No, I mean

AG: It’s actual history, oral history.

Mike Burton: ..Its reality, but the thing is that these outlaws are acting out every fantasy that the other people have. And it’s something like, you always wanted to walk into a bank and take the money. I don’t know one kid who didn’t ever want to walk past a plate-glass window and throw something through it, just, you know….

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott interview continues here 

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