There is a certain history of this United States that has never been taught in school. In this history, scribed in hieroglyphics along the brain cavities of an old cowboy named Ramblin' Jack Elliott, America is a drunken turtle wearing a cowboy hat riding a wooden schooner tossed upon cloudy seas.The schooner docks in New York City and there is Jack Kerouac, three years before the publication of On the Road, reading the whole thing (from one continuous roll of paper) out loud to Ramblin' Jack, who kind of likes it but feels J.K. got some of the parts wrong. Down the street, Bob Dylan is setting up for his very first gig at Gerde's Folk City in the Village, calling himself "The Son of Ramblin' Jack." Then comes Vietnam, the Johnny Cash Show, the Grateful Dead, Ronald Reagan, Sheryl Crow, guitars that won't tune and zebra mussel larvae in the bilge water.
Connect the dots, people. All of funky Americana culture — from Kerouac to Kid Rock, from Cochise to mad cow disease, from Eisenhower to Maria Muldaur — has been inspired, instigated, and certified by yodeling, guitar-strumming Ramblin' Jack Elliott. That's why his appearance at the Beach Theatre next Wednesday (May 19) is a landmark event for this area. The ghost of Woody Guthrie, the dog that drove Jack's truck through Wyoming, every cowboy poet who's ever rhymed the range — they'll all be there in the songs, story and persona of a man whose life makes Forrest Gump look like a monastery lhasa apso.
"I haven't been to the Tampa Bay area ... well ... in my memory," Jack said, by phone from Montana the other night. "And that's a damn long time. Just tell people I still got two cats, no dogs, two boats that won't float and my old rusty '67 Volvo is for sale. That's basically what I'm doing nowadays Oh yeah, I just got back from Australia. Nice horses down there."
Ramblin' Jack's appearance will be the first in a series of Americana singer/ songwriter concerts planned by promoter Tom Gribbin at the remodeled art deco theater. Opening the 8 p.m. show will be Bobby Hicks, Florida folk singer and raconteur of the righteous.
Born in Brooklyn, Jack left home at 14 and somehow hooked up with folk icon Guthrie. The pair hitched rides, jumped freights, rode rodeo and created legend from sea to shining sea until Woody was hospitalized in the early '60s. Always preferring a good cup of coffee to a business plan, Jack rambled on, finally "making it" at the end of the '90s with a Grammy, a National Presidential Medal of Arts, and a movie about his life — his daughter's stunning The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack was a Sundance winner and cult classic.
Still performing more than 50 shows a year at the age of 72, Jack prefers life one step behind the fame his protégés achieved. In fact, his legend spawned a cottage industry of Ramblin' Jack imposters — the real Jack pursued the frauds from town to town with threats of "kicking their ass." (When the Ft. Lauderdale Ramblin' Jack died a few years back, the real Ramblin' Jack "was actually kind of sad," said filmmaker Aiyana Elliott. "He had been a part of dad's life for so long.")
Ramblin' Jack Elliott taught me one rule that I hold steadfastly to, even though it has irritated numerous women in my life.
Several years ago, we were in Marin County, Calif., riding to dinner in Jack's big SUV. He parked in the lot and the women jumped out. As I started to move, he held my arm. He told his wife, affectionately known as Ramblin' Jan, to find out if we were in the back or the front of the restaurant.
Jan shot Jack a cross look and, with my girlfriend in tow, disappeared momentarily behind a hedge. "The door's around the other side," Jan yelled. Jack immediately started the engine.
"What are you doing?" she demanded (and I kinda wanted) to know.
"Driving to the front door," he allowed, pushing the brim of his cowboy hat down.
"God damn Jack, it's only 50 feet around the corner," she yelled, as he backed out, made a wide slo-mo circle of the entire parking lot and settled into an empty spot ... yes, about 50 feet from where we just were. Jan stared at us with you lazy bastards written all over her face.
Ramblin' Jack turned off the motor, pulled out the key and grabbed my arm again. I looked into the eyes of an American legend. Right there he gave me Ramblin' 101:
"Cowboy never walks," he said, pushing the brim of his hat back up, "when he can ride."
Freelance writer Peter B. Gallagher lives in St. Petersburg.