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91-year-old Ramblin' Jack to make a stop at The Down Home

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Ramblin Jack Elliott by Dan Dion.jpg

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott will pass through the area for a performance Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee

Out where the buffalo roam rambles a man whose name reflects his lifestyle.

Ramblin’ Jack’s never-ending highway will pause the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2. That’s when the legendary traveling troubadour will visit the Down Home in Johnson City. He first hit the road when he ran away from home in Brooklyn, New York, at age 14.

“I didn’t know I was a teenager. I just thought I was a young human being trying to learn about life,” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott said by phone from his home near San Francisco. “I had never been on a bucking horse. They said they would pay me $10 per horse to ride horses nobody else wanted to ride. Oh, it was a splendid, exciting, beautiful show. It was a traveling rodeo.”

Life wasn’t so much a box of chocolates, but Elliott sought adventure like burrs find the hides of horses. He had an unquenchable desire for the life of a rodeo cowboy.

“I ran away from home and got a job grooming horses on the road,” Elliott said.

Perhaps oddly enough, Elliott discovered his love of the guitar while on the road with the rodeo.

“One of the clowns on the show, a fella named Brahmer Rogers played guitar and banjo and sang hillbilly songs, cowboy songs,” Elliott said. “He would entertain us rodeo hands between the afternoon performance and the evening performance. And we’d put a quarter in his hat if we had any money. I heard him playing, and I was with that rodeo for about three months until my parents discovered where I was.”

Elliott returned home, but not for long. Fate intervened when teenaged Elliott met perhaps America’s greatest living folk singer, Woody Guthrie.

“I had heard Woody Guthrie, liked his music and I started listening to some of his records back in around 1949,” Elliott said. “I met Woody in 1951. A great guitar player named Tom Paley, who I thought was the greatest guitar player on Earth next to Merle Travis, gave me Woody’s phone number. I called Woody up.”

As with his half-century of record albums, Elliott never lacked for boldness.

“Woody said, ‘come on over to the house sometime and bring your guitar. We’ll knock off a couple of tunes.’ But he said ‘don’t come today though. I’ve got a belly ache,’” Elliott said. “He had a ruptured appendix. Almost died. He ended up in the hospital. So, I waited about three days, got my guitar together, and went to the hospital to visit Woody. That was the first time we had met.”

Soon thereafter, Elliott moved in with Guthrie and his family. Thus began their traveling times on the road.

Still on the road, Elliott’s stories oftentimes contain names of the most important figures of music in American music history. He was close friends with Guthrie. He was close friends with Bob Dylan before the world knew him.

“To me, Woody was a giant of a hero even though he only stood about five foot two,” Elliott said. “Tom Paley said there was only about three feet of Woody and two feet of hair. He had a big pile of curvy hair up on top. He was a great, great storyteller. Everything he said sounded like a poem to me.”

Guthrie eagerly embraced a nomadic lifestyle. He was famous for taking to his heels, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains and so forth.

“He rode a lot of freight trains,” Elliott said. “I’ve only ridden one freight train in my life.”

Meaning, Elliott hopped a freight train one time. Into an open boxcar he leapt and landed.

“It was a pleasant day,” Elliott said. “But it was a very bumpy ride.”

Elliott first traveled through Southern Appalachia and Tennessee while on tour with folk singing buddies Frank Robinson and Guy Carawan in 1954. A year later, Elliott provided three songs including “Pretty Boy Floyd” for an LP, “Badmen and Heroes,” which Elektra Records issued in 1955. A year later, Topic Records spun Elliott’s six-song EP, “Woody Guthrie’s Blues,” to the folk craze buying public.

By then he was married and traveling Europe for the first time. Elliott’s American folk music repertoire contained generous brands of cowboy and blues music, which separated his repertoire even from that of Guthrie.

“I was a good entertainer,” Elliott said. “I could imitate the sound of a Model A Ford starting up.”

Then Elliott did exactly that. Sounded like one, too.

Elliott’s preferred mode of travel remains either by plane of car, preferably amid smooth skies or roads. Of note, he’s piloted airplanes, ridden bucking broncs, thumbed for rides, slept with horses, and sang with Johnny Cash.

“I think I’ve been to all 48 states,” he said. “Of course, now there are 50 states. I’ve been to Alaska five times.”

Like the fellow in Hank Snow’s rapid-fire country smash, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott lives up to his name. He’s been everywhere, seems to have done everything, and continues to lead as nomadic a life as one can at the age of 91.

“I’ve never flown a 747. That’s about it,” Elliott said. “I’ve never been to the South Pole. I’ve done about everything else.”

If You Go

Who: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

When: Sunday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Down Home, 300 W. Main St., Johnson City

Admission: $30 advance, $35 at the door

Info: 423-929-9822

Web, audio and video: www.ramblinjackelliott.com

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

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