'Ramblin' Jack' hits the right notes

Ramblin' Jack Elliott may not be a familiar name to young music listeners, and the rustic overtones of his moniker - the folksy adjective, the dropped consonant, the jaunty apostrophe - may seem affected nowadays.

But Elliott was a quintessential hero of the great folk-music revival that swept American youth in the 1960s. Some critics have made his contribution sound more indispensable than it really was, but it's fair to describe his performances as a key link between the undiluted traditionalism of pioneers like Woody Guthrie, on one hand, and the folk-inflected innovations of Bob Dylan's generation, on the other.

Ironically, the very authenticity of his ramblin' persona helped cultivate the semi-obscurity he now endures - or enjoys, to judge from his good-humored appearances in "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," the new documentary about his life. He really was a ramblin' man, often showing up late for concerts and recording dates, or missing them altogether.

He neglected to master the fine art of dealing with record companies, as well, collecting only a fraction of the royalties that should have made him a financial success as well as an artistic one. And he was a rambler in another sense, too, as fellow singer Kris Kristofferson points out in an on-screen interview: a rambling talker, who sometimes gabbed so much during his shows that fans heard far less music than they'd expected for their money.

There's much archetypal appeal in this portrait of the artist as an unmercenary minstrel - part cowboy, part hobo, part folkloric researcher, part barroom raconteur - forever wandering America's highways and byways in search of the nation's elusive soul. But as "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" makes clear, Elliott has been a bundle of contradictions, and these lend the movie much of its fascination. While he lived the life of a genuine rambler, he was born the opposite, entering the world as Elliott Adnopoz, the son of a Jewish doctor who wanted his child to stay in Brooklyn and follow in his medical footsteps.

Elliott claimed he changed his name because rodeo announcers couldn't pronounce it - he could hardly pronounce it himself, he amusingly adds - but he saw his wandering-cowpoke fantasies as a route to public adulation and private gratification. In short, he invented the character of Ramblin' Jack Elliott from a mixture of personal and professional motives, and then played his self-devised role in an all-embracing performance that defined his life and work.

Adding another layer of interest to "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" is the fact that his daughter, Aiyana Elliott, directed it. Maintaining a stable domestic environment was never high on the singer's list, and he didn't spend much quality time with his children (two) or wives (four) during his peripatetic career. He appears to have settled down in recent years - he's in his late 60s now - but some of the movie's poignant moments occur when his director-daughter enters the picture to grab some fatherly attention she didn't get while growing up.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" will appeal to just about anyone interested in music, Americana, or family dynamics. But it will have extra appeal for folk fans who remember the glory days of the 1950s and '60s, when legendary giants like Lead Belly were recent memories, Guthrie was still a living inspiration, and gifted newcomers like Elliott could tap into a community of young talents in urban and rural centers around the country.

The movie is simplistic in some respects; it returns so often to Manhattan's fabled Washington Square Park, for instance, that you might think this was the singular hub of the folk universe. But its affectionate heart makes up for its sometimes offhanded historical sense. And its superb archival and interview footage - of towering figures like Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ron - is priceless.

Ramble on over to "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" for the most rousing hootenanny in recent memory.

*Not rated; contains a small amount of vulgar language and drug use.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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