Cowboys Never Walk When They Can Ride

On a sunlit morning drive along the California seashore, it was Story Time with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

Riding high up on the bench seat of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s deep blue Ford F350 Super Duty, he and I wind North on CA Route 1 just after 9am on a dazzlingly-sunny January morning. Sunlight slices stripes into lingering shadows on the flakey bark of eucalyptus trees lining both sides of the road. And the throttled rumble of the truck’s diesel engine straining against low gear provides a gentle soundtrack to the conversation.

Prompted by a comment I made about the CB radio he mounted to the truck’s dashboard, Elliott’s telling me about the time he was on stage with Kris Kristofferson at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles when Hoyt Axton threw his hat up on stage. He recognized the hat’s owner by the Roseburg Oregon manufacturer’s label inside it. It’s the same town outside of which Axton lived for many years, and in which the trucking company that gave Elliott the CB radio was based.

But before he finishes that story, we jump back to another memory–how he came to be on stage with Kris Kristofferson. He’d had Kristofferson on stage with him at his own show in San Francisco and Janis Joplin was angry with him for not going to her show. But that worked out for Kristofferson because the owner of the Troubadour heard him play that night with Elliott, and invited him down to Los Angeles.

It’s this tendency for long, meandering stories that earned Elliott, who turned 92 August 1, the “Ramblin’” moniker. Over the course of his seven-decade long career, perhaps his most notable success has been inspiring bigger musicians and chronicling the ephemera of their lives. Elliott was the conduit through which Bob Dylan absorbed Woody Guthrie’s gospel; inspired Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger; got his nickname from Odetta’s mother; worked cows with Ian Tyson and Larry Mahan; took at least one LSD trip with poet John Perry Barlow; flits through Axton and Kristofferson’s songs; and performed and travelled with Guy Clark, John Prine, Cat Stevens, and Bob Weir (among others).

By nurturing his storytelling talent, Elliott’s crafted himself into both a character of American folk music lore and a guardian of it. Famously, on stage he performs a lyrical mixture of song and rambling retellings of the tales he’s collected.

This morning, I’m his only audience. Elliott’s taking me on a tour through the verdant hills above the craggy sea cliffs of the Point Reyes seashore outside Marshall, California, which he’s called home for the last 30 years. As he shows me around, he tells me stories from his life and seems to have a memory for each ranch, overlook, and side road. He has a performer’s impeccable timing, and lands punchlines with a jaunty, half wink and wry grin. The only thing to do is to shut up and enjoy the ride.

Creeping along a curvy two-lane road sandwiched between a creek and a steep, grassy bank, Elliott looks up and greets the cattle grazing along the fence line. ‘You can roll down your window,’ he tells me. But it’s a direction more than a suggestion, so I do. We inhale deeply, taking in the acrid, slightly sweet scent of fresh cow manure and damp earth. We’re surrounded by some of California’s most prolific dairy and meat ranchers and with the windows open, a balmy breeze fills the truck’s cab with smell.

Some of Elliott’s stories are no doubt – to borrow a phrase from Kristofferson – “partly truth and partly fiction,” but that only adds to their allure. And it’s the unbiased zeal with which he relishes retelling them that makes each one captivating. He’s a collector of moments and whether one person or a million people recognize the characters is of little consequence – a good story is just that.

Elliott’s story from earlier in our drive concludes with him sitting on a couch between Janis Joplin and Kristofferson the first time she performed her seminal version of Kristofferson’s “Me ‘n Bobby McGee” for him. Joplin’s recording of the song – a  first-person musing about the adventures of two down and out drifters – was released after her death, and is arguably her best-known song.

As a secondary character of music history, Elliott occupies a curious place in the cultural zeitgeist – he never made it big, but he never flamed out, either. Because of the long, slow burn of his career he’s become a folk music legend simply by living through so much history. And now, as a vestige of a bygone era, he’s a record incarnate of the moments and characters from folk music’s glory days. But he’s acutely, if good naturedly, aware that although he’s born witness, few people would remember he was there, if he weren’t around to tell them.

“I recorded it [Me ‘N Bobby McGee] before she did, but I think she sold a few more albums. I’ve never been big in the record business,” he says, dryly.

Elliott is fascinated by most large crafts–airplanes, boats, semi-trucks–and although his rig is an automatic, as we cruise into the hills, he shifts through its gears as though driving a manual transmission. We pass grassy fields and wind-stunted trees divided by post and wire fences that separate herds of cows, sheep, and water buffalo.

Elliott’s admiration of the American cowboy has been a throughline in his life. Born Elliott Adnopoz, a Jewish doctor’s son in Brooklyn, he idolized the idealistically rough and tumble frontier cowboys in Will James novels and fell in love with the cowboy mythos watching Gene Autry warble across Madison Square Garden. Elliott relishes retelling how, as a nine-year-old he sat transfixed, watching a spotlight illuminate a white sheet of paper suspended in air. Gene Autry, riding a horse burst through the and began to circle the stadium singing “Back in the Saddle Again.”

When he tells the story, Elliott sings the moment: “’I’m back in the saddle again out where a friend is a friend / where the long horn cattle feeeeeeed on the lowly gypsum weed / back in the saddle again,’ and I thought wow, that’s for me.”

The next year, as Elliott and his family returned to the Garden to see the rodeo again, they passed a cowboy in a clean white shirt and jeans leaning against the stables. Unlike Autry, who performed in ornately-embroidered nudie suits and western gear, this buckaroo had no flowers on his shirt. This was a real cowboy, Elliott thought, and he gave up on Gene Autry for a while.

At 15, Elliott ran away to join the J.E. Ranch Rodeo, the only rodeo east of the Mississippi. He passed a few months grooming horses and listening to a singing rodeo clown perform cowboy standards. After his parents dragged him back to the city, Elliott taught himself those cowboy standards on a cigar box wood Collegiate guitar and busked on New York City streets and in Washington Square Park. Soon he was immersed in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival.

But still eager to be a cowboy, and tired of the city, Elliott spent years working on ranches and even tried his hand at rodeo bull riding. For weeks before he got on one, he serenaded the bulls on his guitar, he tells me. Eventually, he screwed up his courage, making it just the canonical seven seconds on a gentle giant, Big Herf, before deciding he’d had enough.

After his single bull ride, Elliott developed a poison oak rash. In his retelling, Big Herf intentionally rubbed on the plant to deter Elliott from becoming a bull rider. “He liked my music and didn’t want me to be a bull rider, see,” he deadpans.

Although he wasn’t destined for rodeo fame, the cowboys at Gary Leffew’s bull riding school taught Elliott one very important life lesson which he repeats for me now: “cowboys never walk when they can ride.” He growls the words out low and slow for effect.

We’ve been on the road for a couple of hours and along the way have slowed down to visit with dogs, cows, sheep, water buffalo, and a few horses. Now, deep in the Marin County hills, I’m starting to wonder: doesn’t a cowboy need a horse? Has he ever owned one? I ask. Just the one: a quarter horse named Young Brigham, after the horse’s sire: Brigham Young.

“He was a Mormon horse cause he didn’t like hippies, very opinionated, I tried to teach him to smoke marijuana, but I don’t think he liked it very much,” Elliott says, laughing to himself.

Leaving the pavement to drive me up a narrow country lane he’s never explored before, Elliott quickly decides to backtrack. But it’s too late, the truck’s tires spin in soft mud. We’re stuck. We get out to lock the wheel hubs so he can put us in four-wheel-drive. “Turn them clockwise,” he instructs me. Free from the mud, we’re back on the road and Elliott steers us south for lunch at Whale of a Deli in Point Reyes Station.

Over tacos, Elliott quips that he tried to learn trigonometry so he could navigate boats. He makes a circle with his left thumb and forefinger, and holds it up in front of his eye. Hazel eye twinkling through the finger frame at me, he curves the other hand into a “C” shape and clicks his tongue to mimic the sound of the navigational equipment he’s conjured.

For Elliott, the downside to 70 years on stage is that it’s worn thin the romanticism of it all. He’s made a career performing other people’s songs and stories and written very few songs himself, he says. That means, as he puts it, he’s not an artist, he’s an entertainer. And if pressed to fill in a for listing his profession, he might go further than that:

“I’d write bullshit artist if I was going to be truthful about it, but I’m not going to be truthful about it because I’m a bullshit artist, so I’ll probably just write entertainer,” he muses.

But through all those years of bullshit, he’s learned how to play to the moment, of course. The first time I saw him perform live, it was in a musty, woodsy tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas. At that concert, mid-set, between “Arthritis Blues,” and the “South Coast” ballad, he launched into a story about Henry David Thoreau. At Walden Pond, Thoreau threw a stick far out into the water, for his dog, a Labrador “non-retriever,” who dutifully brought the stick back to shore and shook dry all over the poet’s leg.

“What a time, what a beach, what a dog,” Elliott drawled, as the imaginary Thoreau personified.

At the end of our drive, as he parks at his house so I can get my car, I remind Elliott of this line. “Henry David Thoreau said those words,” he says, without missing a beat. He even has a tee-shirt printed with the lines, which was given to him by Steven Frumholz, the rancher and writer who also composed a song called “The Man with the Big Hat.”

And as I open the door and step down out of the truck Elliott serenades me: “The man with the big hat is buying / drink up while the drinking is free / drink to the cowboys dead and a dyin’ / drink to my compadres and me.”

He waves and I close the door so he can hit the road again.

After all, cowboys never walk when they can ride.

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