Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – The Jack Elliott Interview – 3

The Allen Ginsberg-Ramblin’ Jack Elliott conversation continues

JE: Well, the big song that we were pushing  on the Rolling Thunder tour, our heaviest number probably, and what might have been one of the main purposes of the tour, it would seem, and gave us a lot of spirit, was the song about Hurricane Carter. I just saw in the paper today where Hurricane Carter beat up his lady manager..

AG: Just now?

JE: ..and she’s in a .. no, it happened a while back, but she didn’t want him to go to jail and she didn’t want to hurt hi,. She thinks he needs psychiatric help.

AG: Does he (still beat up on women)?

JE: No, this happened when he was fighting, as a professional fighter

AG: Wow!

JE: Yeah, it was a while back, and she claims that he needs psychiatric help, doesn’t need to be in jail. I met him. I thought he was a charming man..

AG: Yeah.  Actually, the newspaper reporters around Paterson..

JE: Are people going to start to write Bob Dylan letters now, saying “You misjudged this character and you’re a fink”?

AG: The newspaper reporters on the Paterson Evening Newswere telling me that Dylan may be making a political mistake because actually Carter may be guilty or something.

JE: I was thinking about that song all along too, and I still feel that, political mistake or no political mistake, Dylan hasn’t got a worry. He doesn’t need to worry about doing any wrong. Whatever good he’s done with it outshines the wrong, because it’s gonna do more good in the whole world in general..

AG: Yeah, but I’m thinking about is the songs themselves, the karma..

JE: It doesn’t matter so much whether or not Hurricane Carter, the person, is a fink, or a bad fellow. It’s going to straighten out the whole legal system more. Exposing the corruption in the government is more important than for us to decide whether or not a certain prisoner who was accused and stuck away, whether he committed any other crimes on the side and was actually a bad boy after all, a really nasty person..

Mike Burton: What Jack is saying is that, about Pretty Boy Floyd, whether or not, he delivered groceries doesn’t matter. If the people believed he did and looked at him that way, that’s what’s important.

AG: Uh-huh

JE: What I’m saying is, if you’re gonna be a poet, and if you’re gonna also get tied up in politics and work politics, and good and bad and all that heavy political stuff, and involved taking some person who is a criminal and making a hero out of him in your poetry, then you should have the poetic license to do so, I think. Make him a hero. Because he’s only a symbol, anyway. A symbol for a two-legged man , or a woman, homo sapiens. And I think the whole thing is to make the world a better place to live in and straighten up all these corrupt laws and stuff like that, and who he actually was is none of our business anyway…

AG: But when you were fifteen…

JE: ..because he was only used as a scapegoat as far as that’s concerned anyway..

AG: But how did politics come into your head at fifteen or sixteen?

JE: It never has. It still hasn’t. I try and stay out of politics. As a matter of fact, I always get weirded out by political organizations and with the machinations and the group syndrome and the people getting together and actually a lot of raving and stuff . I stay back in the other part of the room where I’m practicing the guitar. When Phil Ochs..(who was a friend of mine years ago – we used to hang out in the same bars and same houses and sing and pick together in the Gaslight and in Phil’s house), when I was at the Phil Ochs Memorial Concert, I didn’t even get to see the concert  (and I would have liked to have seen it) and (what) parts of it I saw I didn’t enjoy too much, and I didn’t enjoy the scene back-stage either, because there was too many people back there, and I was rehearsing this song, because they told me I had to learn this song that I didn’t know, and it takes me a year-and-a-half to really get the handle on a song, but I wanted to do the best I could with what they gave me, and I had the song pasted on my guitar (which is awkward, and embarrassing) but I just wanted to put my energy into, you know, showing my support for Phil and for the whole thing, and they did their lecturing and stuff, and they were good at it, but I’m not. I’m just good at picking a guitar and saying these words, you know, in a way that’s going to be right – right-sounding, artful..

AG: How much have you changed..

JE: ..and I just hung out and rehearsed all day, all night, and in the concert.

AG:.. Like “Pretty Boy Floyd” from Guthrie’s version..

JE: Hardly

AG: Does he (Woody) sing.. [Allen attempts imitating Elliott’s twang]

JE: I’m imitating and maybe over-exaggerating some of Woody’s own speech-patterns and mannerisms, which are largely from Oklahoma. I became so in love with Oklahoma that, for about thee years, I was going around telling everybody that I was an Okie, and I was singing around Europe to the U.S. Forces, and singing to drunk soldiers and all kind of Army camp situations around Germany, telling them I was from Oklahoma and singing these cowboy songs and stuff, but I kept meeting all these nice guys from Oklahoma who’d come up (and everyone from Oklahoma and Texas knows everyone else), and they’d come up and say, “What part of Oklahoma are you from?”  I got tired of lying about it after a while, and sort of released all of the garish truth in some news releases that I was from Brooklyn. Then everybody stopped buying my records!

AG: What was the next song, after “Pretty Boy Floyd”, that you got? The next big enlightenment song?

JE: One of the heaviest and most powerful and beautiful songs that Woody ever wrote (and a long one too) is based on an old outlaw  ballad that was sung bythe Carter Family , called “John Hardy”. And I’ll sing a little bit of that too, if you like, for an example.

AG: Lead Belly sang some of that too, didn’t he?

JE: Yeah, yeah, I think he did.

AG: Did his precede the Carter Family(’s version), or not?

JE: No, I think they go before him, even. Lead Belly sang a lot of wonderful outlaw ballads. Of course, him having spent a lot of time in prison, he ought to know some!  Have you seen the movie about Lead Belly?

AG: No

JE: I saw that recently, and Tiny was there, his niece. I thought it was real goodThe man (who) played the part of Lead Bellydidn’t look a lot like I would have him look, you know. He looked a bit too well-fed, maybe. But Lead Belly was a big strong man. But, by the time the picture gets half over, you really love this guy. He’s a terrific actor (and he doesn’t sing or play himself at all – he had someone else do the soundtrack)  [Jack Elliott begins singing the ballad, “John Hardy” – “John Hardy was a desperate little man/ Carried two guns every day/ Shot down a man on the West Virginia line/ You should have seen John Hardy getting away. John Hardy run to the Freestone Bridge/ Trying to make his getaway/ Along come a sheriff and took him by the arm/ Said “Johnny, come along with me””] – Now, Woody took that melody and he just wrote a whole bunch of different words to it, but the same meter, so it fit right in, and wrote a song about Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which was the whole story of that motion picture, The Grapes of Wrath.

AG: Lead Belly sang about John Henry or something, didn’t he?

JE: That’s another, totally different – different tune, different man, different story. John Henry was a hero of the railroad where he was working and he had a race with a steam-hammer. He said, “Ain’t no steam-machine gonna beat me”, and he’s gonna drive steel faster than a machine, and they had a race, and John Henry beat the steam-drill but he died.

AG: Let’s see, what are the variants on the John…

JE: John Hardy?

AG: Hardy?

JE: The one that Woody wrote – “Jesse James” [Jack Elliott begins singing (with Allen harmonizing on alternative verses) – “…But the dirty little coward that shot Mr Howard/ Has laid poor Jesse in his grave”) –

And here’s “Tom Joad” now. This is the one that Woody wrote about the Grapes of Wrath story [Jack Elliott sings (solo) 15 verses of Woody Guthrie’s classic song]

The Ramblin’ Jack Elliott interview continues (and concludes) – here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *