Ramblin' Jack Elliott at Hopmonk Tavern Novato, by Carolyn McCoy
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (photo: Carolyn McCoy)

Words by Carolyn McCoy

There are very few old-timer troubadour folk singers left, as most of them have passed on through the Pearly Gates of Heaven. There was a time when the world had plenty of them around, causing havoc while rambling around America telling stories on their beat-up old guitars. These troubadours of the days of yore spent their time riding freight trains and singing about the greatness of this land being our land; they sported instruments that stated “This Machine Kills Fascits” and they were musicians who were not afraid of challenging the status quo of music and politics.

Traditional rabble-rouser folks singers seems to be a thing of the past, except for the one and only Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Elliott is now a couple of years shy of 90, and he’s been following the bumpy road of song-slinger for almost as long. He learned his trade from the best: Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Mississippi John Hurt while inspiring the next generation of song makers including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and the Grateful Dead. Now that is one heck of a resume for a man who, to this day, eschews the mold of commercial music-maker.

Elliott is still very much active with his music, touring and gigging quite a bit throughout the year, and his recent matinee show for KC Turner Presents at Novato’s HopMonk Tavern was a treat to his many fans, young and old. He may be a bit more fragile in his physicality, but his humor and wit are sharp as a tack, as noted in his deadpan quip upon coming onstage: “I want to thank you all for coming out this morning!” It gave us all a chuckle, because we were well aware that it was already afternoon — even at 88 years old, Elliott is still keeping musician hours.

After opening the show with the Jesse Fuller song “San Francisco Bay Blues,” he was off and running with stories, side remarks, anecdotes and explanations of nothing in particular. “Glad to see you’re still awake, that’s a good sign,” he stated halfway through his show — as if we would even think of being bored while witnessing this iconic man perform. Elliott covered much ground in his short but song-packed set including “Arthritis Blues,” “South Coast,” “House Of The Rising Sun,” and “Bedbug Blues,” sometimes forgetting lyrics or stopping a song midway to tell more stories or begin another song. His musical partner Billy D sat in for a few Dylan songs, rounding out a mellow and lovely afternoon of music.

There is no other man like Ramblin’ Jack. His history, his legacy, and his songs are very much a part of the story of the Great American Songbook. Many have tried to copy him, be like him, or embody what he stands for, but in reality, no one can ever take his place in the deep folk music history of our country.