Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a troubadour on a never-ending highway, returns to Baton Rouge on Sunday for his third appearance at the Red Dragon Listening Room. At 86, he’s an actively touring fountain of songs who recalls his long life’s myriad adventures in exacting, amusing detail.
Elliott speaks in stream-of-consciousness fluidity. His knack for storytelling, poetic description and quantity of words places him in the same league as his 1950s contemporaries, the beat poets.
“When I’m performing, it’s supposed to be a form of entertainment,” Elliott said. “People pay money to come see me, so it’s not the same as being at somebody’s birthday party. I want to give them a professional experience, but I sometimes get carried away.
“That’s why they call me Ramblin’. It’s not because I travel. My stories ramble. I remember stuff, and I’ll get into a much longer story than I intended. I’ve had complaints about too many stories and not enough music. Because a lot of these people are serious music lovers, I try to keep the music going.”
Truthfully, Elliott has kept the songs flowing for 70 years. Along the way, he befriended and traveled with folk music master Woody Guthrie. He recorded more than 40 albums and influenced Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones and many more.
In 2016, Elliott received the Folk Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts. His five Grammy nominations yielded two wins.
The singer-songwriter, whose real name is Elliott Charles Adnopoz, grew up in a Jewish family in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. A trip to a rodeo show in 1940 lit a fire in him for the cowboy life.
“I never saw any cowboys until I was 9 years old,” he said. “My parents made the mistake of taking me to the rodeo in Madison Square Garden.”
His parents made the same mistake the following year.
“I really loved that excitement and the horses and everything,” Elliott said. “I saw a cowboy leaning up against a building, right next to the Madison Square Garden employees entrance on 49th Street. I looked up at him. He was a mile tall. He reached down and shook my hand.
“I thought, ‘Wow. He doesn’t have flowers all over his shirt like the movie cowboys do.’ He wore a plain white shirt and Levi’s. We didn’t have Levi’s in New York City. And he wore polished black boots. He was so real. I was so impressed by the difference between a cowboy and Gene Autry. But I had been listening to Gene Autry’s radio program all that year, dreaming about going out West and maybe visiting Gene and riding with him.”
At 15, Elliott ran away from home to join the J.E. Ranch Rodeo. While his parents in Brooklyn worried about their missing son, he worked as a rodeo hand for three months. The outfit’s clown, Claude “Brahma” Rogers, played guitar and banjo, and sang cowboy and hillbilly songs. That was Elliott’s first exposure to folk music.
Rogers’ performances inspired Elliott to learn to play guitar. After his voluntary return to his parents’ house in Brooklyn, he took a few guitar lessons, but he's mostly self-taught. His debut musical performance, on the entrance steps of his high school, got a nice reception.
“There were maybe five or six kids around,” he remembered. “I sang ’em three or four cowboy songs and they clapped. And I thought, ‘That’s pretty good.’ ”
People are still clapping, and he’s still singing.
RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT/YVETTE LANDRY/RICHARD COMEAUX
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Red Dragon Listening Room, 2401 Florida Blvd., Baton Rouge
COST: $50, VIP $60