A little before 9 p.m. on a cold and drizzling night, Elliot Charles Adnopoz, better known as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, tiptoed downstairs from a makeshift green room — the pool room at the White Water Tavern — and captivated a mostly silent audience for 45 minutes.
Elliott, wearing a silver-belly cowboy hat and suspenders, said his usual opener, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” had been played so well by opening musician Joe Sundell that he’d start with a Bessie Smith classic. The mean “Bedbug Blues” had audience members chuckling from their chairs lining the front of the White Water’s wooden stage.
By the end of the song, Elliott had morphed from a Flatbush, Brooklyn, blues singer to earnest cowboy songster and slaphappy road poet with “Diamond Joe.” Elliott introduced the song with a story about how he’d heard it from a rodeo cowboy in Brussels, Belgium, in the mid-1950s. In predictable but pleasing form, Elliott then rambled for five minutes about the breakup with his picking and singing partner, Derroll Adams, over a case of beer and the pressure alcohol had on his ex-wife, June, who later managed the Rolling Stones.
The way Elliott waxes, you hang on to every word. He’s like a grandfather gesturing from an old comfortable chair, and you nearly forget that he has a Martin D-28 guitar in his hand and is here to play music.
Suddenly, the yarn stopped. Elliott played a few lonesome minor chords and sang the shaky opening verses of the song, about a cowboy under the thumb of greedy and lawless ranch boss Diamond Joe. The song was obviously a crowd pleaser; fidgets ceased, the crowd’s breath stopped collectively short.
Elliott moved on to the “Arthritis Blues,” singing a little high for his liking, and moved his guitar capo to a sweeter spot up the neck. Switching the musical key a few times with a capo, sometimes called a guitar “cheater,” is a repeat gag in Elliott’s repertoire, but this particular time, one false start was enough for him to settle upon the key in which he wanted to sing. The song twisted and turned, rendered in the manner of an arthritic hand.
Soon after, we were introduced to the material that Elliott is most famous for, from the star to which he hitched his wagon. “Buffalo Skinners” took the wind out of the room, much like the 78 rpm version Woody Guthrie recorded in 1945. Trancelike in delivery, Elliott placed us on the range of the buffalo in ’83 — not 1983, he clarified — in a dream-like tapestry, filmic in its montage detail. Again, the narrator laments a cowboy’s exploitation by a corrupt buffalo hunter boss in what Alan Lomax called Elliott’s “Hollywood version” of the song. In Elliott’s hands, Woody Guthrie’s words and images took on childlike wonder, as if a young Elliot Adnapoz had fallen in love with the American myth of the Western Plains not only from hearing about it in song, but in the darkened room of a 1940s picture show. As “Buffalo Skinners” came to its last breath, Elliott imitated the sound of the wind on the prairie, blowing into the microphone, reminding us to catch our own breath after a stunning gaze into the past.
After playing a fragment of the Rolling Stones’ song “Connection” — to which Elliott himself couldn’t quite make a connection — he told how Bob Dylan “relinquished” his song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to him sometime in the mid-’60s. Most intriguing about his tale was the way it revealed Elliott’s knowledge about clipper ship anatomy, explained by the dropping level of whiskey in a bottle of Cutty Sark he was drinking one night trying to learn the Dylan song from a record.
The final highlight of the show came with another Woody Guthrie song, “Talking Sailor.” Elliott talked his way through the adventures of a marine merchant fighting the fascists in World War II. With homespun details about sea life and brilliant rhyme laden with acronym (“I’m a union man from head to toe/I’m U.S.A. and C.I.O.), Elliott channeled the sailor’s life of danger and the often rudderless happenstance of wartime exploits. On both land and sea, Elliott coaxed human dignity and absurdity from the silver-belly hat of history.
Encoring with another Dylan staple, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Elliott bid farewell and safe travels to his adoring audience. If you were one of the lucky ones sitting in front of a folk legend for those 45 minutes, you may have also been lucky enough to see an 87-year-old man in cowboy boots gallop up a flight of wooden stairs in the White Water Tavern and into immortality.