If there’s a small fraternity of Jewish cowboys who made it big doing country music, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is certainly a core member. Brooklyn-born, his father was a surgeon and wanted him to be a doctor, but he was drawn in by the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and ran away at 15 to become a folk singer instead. Since then, he’s studied under Woody Guthrie, jammed with Nico in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and went on the road with Bob Dylan, whom was often called Elliott’s son.
In 2009, he was asked to tell the story of his version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” which he’s played for many years along with Dylan’s “Just Like Tom’s Thumb Blues,” which was featured on the soundtrack of I’m Not There, the overlong and fantastic Dylan biopic.
“For three days I was locked in a cabin in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania after my second wife had run off with another man, who was later Bob’s road manager. I was about to play a gig but it snowed so hard that we couldn’t get down the hill to get out of the house. So we were locked in this cabin with firewood and a bottle of whiskey and a Bob Dylan record. I listened to that record all day and night for three days. On the third day the snow melted and I got the door open and jumped in my truck and drove to New York City and went to the Gaslight where everyone hung out. It was a Monday open mic night. I sang about one verse of ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and someone stood up in the audience. I squinted into the darkness and recognized Bob and he waved his arm at me and said [in perfect Dylan imitation], ‘I relinquish it to you, Jack!’ I said, ‘Wow’ and went on playing. I’d never had anything relinquished to me before.”
Now at 82, Elliott’s won a Grammy, a National Medal of Arts, and remains a legendary storyteller and harmonica player. Here he is making his debut on the Johnny Cash Show. First, be blown away by his mastery of fingerpickin’, enjoy his voice, and then cringe a little bit as he engages in some corny musical banter with the show’s namesake, who is (of course) dressed in black.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.