Born in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents in 1931, Elliot Charles Adnopoz, (known as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot) attended Midwood High School in Brooklyn and graduated in 1949. Elliott grew up inspired by the rodeos at Madison Square Garden, and wanted to be a cowboy. Encouraged instead to follow his father’s example and become a surgeon, Elliott rebelled, running away from home at the age of 15 to join Col. Jim Eskew’s Rodeo, the only rodeo east of the Mississippi. They traveled throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. He was only with them for three months before his parents tracked him down and had him sent home, but Elliott was exposed to his first singing cowboy, Brahmer Rogers, a rodeo clown who played guitar and five-string banjo, sang songs, and recited poetry. Back home, Elliott taught himself guitar and started busking for a living. Eventually he got together with Woody Guthrie and stayed with him as an admirer and student.
Woody Guthrie had the greatest influence on Elliott. Guthrie’s son, Arlo, said because of Woody’s illness and early death, Arlo never really got to know him, but learned his father’s songs and performing style from Elliott. Elliott’s guitar and his mastery of Guthrie’s material had a big impact on Bob Dylan when he lived in Minneapolis.When he reached New York, Dylan was sometimes referred to as the ‘son’ of Jack Elliott, because Elliott had a way of introducing Dylan’s songs with the words: “Here’s a song from my son, Bob Dylan.” Dylan rose to prominence as a songwriter; Elliott continued as an interpretative troubadour, bringing old songs to new audiences in his idiosyncratic manner. Elliott also influenced Phil Ochs, and played guitar and sang harmony on Ochs’ song “Joe Hill” from the Tape from California album. Elliott also discovered singer-songwriter Guthrie Thomas in a bar in Northern Cal
Elliott plays guitar in a traditional fingerpicking style, which he matches with his laconic, humorous storytelling, often accompanying himself on harmonica. His singing has a strained, nasal quality which the young Bob Dylan emulated. His repertoire includes American traditional music from various genres, including country,blues, bluegrass and folk.
As far as where he got his name he says “I like to tell a lot of stories, you know—long stories. I had just met Odetta about a month before and she lived across the street from a man that had several Model A Fords. I had just purchased a Model A and I went to see the man about fixing this and that I because he was an expert. The first time I visited Odetta, her mother answered the door and said, ‘Odetta is in the bathtub—you can wait here in the living room.’ So I waited and I waited and I waited—I could hear the water splashing in the bathtub. I could hear Odetta singing to herself! She seemed very content to be in the bathroom for over a half hour. She’s a large person. Anyway, I got tired of waiting so I went up to the bathroom door and said ‘Hey, Odetta—it’s me, Jack! I’m here!’ and I started telling stories about my adventures. Her mother thought that was odd. The next time I visited Odetta and knocked on her door, her mother looks out the little peephole, saw my face and I heard her holler, ‘ODETTA, RAMBLIN’ JACK IS HERE!’ That was the first time I heard that name. I’ve heard it an awful lot since then!”
Jack’s authenticity as a folksy, down-to-earth country boy, despite being a Jewish doctor’s son from Brooklyn, and his disdain for other folk singers, were parodied by the Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) in the satirical documentary A Mighty Wind in the name of their “hit” album Ramblin’. A Mighty Wind also referred to a former member of the New Main Street Singers, Ramblin’ Sandy Pitnick, a somewhat geeky-looking white man in a cowboy hat, apparently in parody of Elliott.
He won his first Grammy Award in 1995 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton in 1998.
His long career and strained relationship with his daughter Aiyana were chronicled in her 2000 film documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.
At the age of 75, he changed labels and released I Stand Alone on the ANTI- label, with an assortment of guest backup players including members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers He said his intention was to title the album Not for the Tourists, because it was recorded in response to his daughter’s request for songs he loved but never played in concert. When asked why he did not, he told her, “These songs are not for the tourists.”