Bob Dylan’s mentor Ramblin’ Jack Elliott shares little-known stories about the icon

About nine years ago, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who turns 91 on August 1) and Bob Dylan crossed paths after Dylan performed a show in Oakland. Before that, Elliott couldn’t remember the last time he spoke to him.

“When [Dylan] When I got to the bus after the show, I said, ‘Nice set, Bob,'” Elliott recalled. “Bob says, ‘Hello Jack.’ I said, ‘I love you, Bob.’ He said, ‘I love you, Jack.’ That was fantastic – we had never declared our love verbally.”

Before disappearing into his tour bus, Dylan stopped and looked at Elliott.

“He said ‘912,’” says Elliott. “I’ve only written about two songs and ‘912 Greens’ is one of them. I said, ‘You know, Billy Faier [a banjo picker referenced in the song] lives and has a house in West Texas?’ Bob says, “What do you know?” Then he got on the bus and that was the end. Pretty long talk for Bob. You don’t know what to expect from him.”

Elliott and Dylan first met in 1961 while visiting the hospital where Woody Guthrie was being treated for pneumonia – the shy teenager had just arrived in New York City from Minnesota to become a folk musician and learn from the master. Meanwhile, Elliott had just returned from Europe, where he had spent several years busking, traveling and recording several albums. He discovered that Dylan owned his first record, Woody Guthrie’s Blues. Since Guthrie spent most of his time in the hospital until his death in 1967, Dylan joined Elliott, who had essentially learned most of his skills from Guthrie.

Dylan moved into the Hotel Earle on Washington Square, next door to Elliott. Folk musician Peter La Farge also lived on the same floor. Elliott took Dylan under his wing like Guthrie had for him. He took Dylan to get his union card so he could perform at “legitimate” venues, including Gerde’s Folk City, the neighborhood bar — with a notoriously tough crowd — where Dylan played his first show.

Dylan rose to international superstardom and Elliott rarely saw him. But every now and then Dylan would reappear. One of those occasions was in the early ’70s when Elliott was a regular performer at the Other End (formerly and now called the Bitter End) in Greenwich Village.

“Bob showed up one night and brought his date Patti Smith,” says Elliott. “I had never heard of her. As the evening drew to a close I was in the office to get my money and Bob walked in and handed me a glass of wine and said, “Hey Jack, we’ve been talking about an idea and we’re wondering if you would too to be interested in. We’d like to tour with a van and play little churches, theaters and stuff—maybe you, me, Bobby Neuwirth and Joan Baez [luminaries including Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell also jumped on board].’ I said, ‘Count me in.’”

Six months later, Neuwirth showed up for Elliott’s regular appearance on the Other End. After that, they went to Neuwirth’s apartment, where he called Dylan.

“They talked for a long time, and then he tricked me,” says Elliott. “‘You remember that thing we talked about in New York?’ Bob says. I said, “Yeah, the van ride?” “Yes,” he said. ‘It’s on. We will do it in November.’ I said, ‘Okay, November.’ bang! That was all.”

The famous Rolling Thunder revue – a free-roaming counterculture cavalcade unlike any other – started in 1975. They played 31 shows in 35 days.

“Nobody knew what they were getting into,” says Elliott. “We were just happy to be there.”

Between the drugs and the crazy flag-waving shenanigans, Elliott highlights some of the defining moments, including an invitation to an Indian reservation in upstate New York where the rowdy troubadours were treated to a dinner with the tribe.

“Bob got up suddenly [during dinner] and started playing, first as if he were fishing for the words, and then it came, everything came out, and he walked up and down the aisle of the dining room with the tables and sang [Peter Le Farge’s] ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,'” recalls Elliott. “Everyone was very moved. I was excited.”

In addition to Dylan’s earnest rendition of the Le Farge classic inspired by the story of the Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, other moments were just as unexpected and just as emotionally charged. The day before a benefit concert for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter at Madison Square Garden, Dylan, Baez, Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Roger McGuinn, and Elliott performed a hush-hush show at the maximum-security prison in New Jersey, where Carter was serving his time. The MSG show raised $100,000 for the prizefighter, who was falsely charged and subsequently found guilty of a murder he did not commit.

After Rolling Thunder, Elliot and Dylan’s paths crossed less frequently. Of course, when Dylan is performing nearby and Elliott is in town, he tries to meet up, but their schedules rarely match.

Over the years, Elliott has included about six Dylan songs in his repertoire. Three of those six touch him the deepest: “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “God on Our Side”.

Elliott recently made it to two of Dylan’s shows at the Fox Theater in Oakland. On the second night, Dylan performed “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” He snarled the line, “Bring that bottle over here,” like Elliott does when he performs it. After the performance, Elliott had the opportunity to visit Dylan for a few minutes.

A close friend of Elliott says it was a magical, joyful reconnection between the two. A new dimension in their long relationship.

“I was excited to see Bob and Bob was excited to see me,” says Elliott.

Bob Dylan plays Thursday, June 23 at 8 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. The show is sold out.

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