About nine years ago, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who turns 91 on Aug. 1 and continues to perform live) and Bob Dylan crossed paths after Dylan performed a show in Oakland. Before that, Elliott couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to him.
“When [Dylan] was heading for the bus after the show, I said, ‘Good set, Bob,’” Elliott recalls. “Bob says, ‘Hi Jack.’ I said, ‘I love you, Bob.’ He said, ‘I love you, Jack.’ That was fantastic—we had never declared our love verbally.”
Before Dylan disappeared into his tour bus, he stopped and looked at Elliott.
“He said, ‘912,’” Elliott says. “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] is alive and has a house in West Texas?’ Bob says, ‘What do you know?’ Then he got on the bus, and that was the end of that. Pretty long conversation for Bob. You don’t know what to expect with him.”
Elliott and Dylan first met in 1961, visiting the hospital where Woody Guthrie was being treated for pneumonia—the shy teenager had just arrived in New York City from Minnesota on a mission 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. With Guthrie held up most of the time in the hospital until his 1967 death, Dylan latched onto Elliott, who had essentially learned most of his chops from Guthrie.
Dylan moved into the Hotel Earle in Washington Square, just down the hall from Elliott. Folk musician Peter La Farge also lived on the same floor. Elliott took Dylan under his wing, as 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 audience—where Dylan played his first show.
Dylan skyrocketed to international superstardom, and Elliott rarely saw him. But once in a while, Dylan would reappear. One of those occasions was in the early ’70s, while Elliott was performing regularly at the Other End (formerly and currently called the Bitter End) in Greenwich Village.
“Bob showed up one night and brought along his date, Patti Smith,” Elliott says. “I had never heard of her. The evening came to a close, and I was in the office getting paid, and Bob walked in, handed me a glass of wine, and said, ‘Hey Jack, we’ve been talking about an idea, and wonder if you’d be interested. We’d like to do a 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 to Elliott’s regular gig at the Other End. Afterward, they headed to Neuwirth’s apartment, where he called Dylan.
“They talked for a long time, and then he put me on,” Elliott says. “‘You remember that thing we talked about in New York?’ Bob says. I said, ‘Yeah, the van trip?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s on. We’re gonna do it in November.’ I said, ‘Okay, November.’ Bang! That was all.”
The storied Rolling Thunder Revue—a freewheeling countercultural cavalcade unlike anything else—kicked off in 1975. They played 31 shows in 35 days.
“Nobody knew what they were getting themselves into,” Elliott says. “We were just happy to be there.”
Between the drugs and freak flag-flying gimmickry, Elliott highlights some of the decisive 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 suddenly stood up [during dinner] and started playing, first like he was fishing for the words, and then it came, it all came out, and he walked up and down the aisle in the dining room with tables, singing [Peter La Farge’s] ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,’” Elliott recalls. “Everybody was very moved. I was thrilled.”
In addition to Dylan’s earnest delivery of the La Farge classic, inspired by the story of the Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, other moments were equally unexpected and equally 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 medium-security prison in New Jersey where Carter was serving time. The MSG show raised $100K for the prize fighter who was falsely charged and subsequently found guilty of murder he didn’t commit.
Following Rolling Thunder, Elliot’s and Dylan’s paths crossed less frequently. Of course, whenever Dylan performs close by and Elliott is in town, he tries to meet up, but their schedules rarely align.
Over the years, Elliott has incorporated about six Dylan songs into his repertoire. Three of those six touch him most profoundly: “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 Theatre in Oakland. On the second night, Dylan played “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” He growled the line, “bring that bottle over here,” as Elliott does when he performs it. After the performance, Elliott had a chance to visit with Dylan for a couple of minutes.
A close friend of Elliott says it was a magical, joyous reconnection between the two. A new dimension in their long relationship.
“I was thrilled to see Bob, and Bob was happy to see me,” Elliott says.
Bob Dylan plays Thursday, June 23, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. The show is sold out.