Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a living legend of Americana. Mentored by Woody Guthrie, Eliott in turn mentored a young Bob Dylan. But more importantly, Jack Elliott is an artist in his own right, a storyteller extraordinaire and the torchbearer of traditional American folk music. Elliott’s life of ramblin’ has taken him to all corners of the globe, as a singer, a sailor and a rodeo roper. But his ramblin’ doesn’t just apply exclusively to his travels. Jack Elliot’s long-winded, tangential, metaphor-laden rambles are legendary.
With The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, Aiyana Elliot, Jack’s daughter, paints a loving portrait of the life of her father and his triumphs and tragedies. But The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack is also a deeply personal story of Aiyana’s search for a closer connection with her father and a meaning to his ramblin’. A funny, touching, beautiful documentary, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack premiered in competition at The Sundance Film Festival, ultimately garnering the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement.
I sat down with Aiyana over a chicken caesar salad to discuss the film, her father and her feelings on electronica.
Have you always wanted to make movies?
My stepdad told me that when I was in the sixth grade we had this women come to our school to do aptitude testing to decide what kind of career you should pursue. He said that I came home from school that day, and I said that I just wanted a job where I can watch movies all day.
That’s not a bad job to have, believe me. So, you wanted to watch movies and eventually make them. Did you always lean toward documentaries?
On the contrary, as a child I did a lot of acting, and I actually ended up in a writing program, but mainly my background was in theatre. I went to Cal Arts to study acting. It’s a really bad idea to study acting. I think it’s a really intuitive thing, and I think that it’s a sham, the whole acting school. It was terrible. It really turned me off of acting.
I was always kind of frustrated even when I was acting--usually with the direction or something. Well, all my interests kind of coalesced for me at NYU in the film program where I did a fiction short, kind of a coming-of-age story called Tough. It was distributed on Bravo. My orientation is definitely narrative dramatic. The documentary thing is just because my darn parents are living such interesting lives that I’ve been compelled to document them while the timing is right.
You originally shot a short subject about your dad at NYU, right?
Yeah, for a video class with Tyler Brody. We got a lot of encouragement to do more with it, but as I said my orientation was with dramatic works, and I wanted to do a dramatic feature first. But then the timing started seeming really right you know with my dad and stuff. Then Tyler founded this company, Plaintain Films, right after school and we got to talking and they decided they wanted to produce it.
You could have just made a documentary about Jack, but this story is as much yours as it is his. At what point did you decide to make this personal?
Jack, of course, is just a wonderful storyteller, I envisioned that he would kind of tell his own story in his own words. There’s was so much important like history and details to his life that we wanted to convey that we ended up writing, scripting out sort of a narrative to tell that part of the story. I wanted to do justice to his story. Then again, originally, I wasn’t sure that there would be any narration and then when I decided that there should be, if I should do it or if I should get someone. Should I get Kristofferson to do it? He has a good voice. And then kind of deciding that it should be from my perspective.
I was pretty reluctant to put myself in, to be a character in the film. I’m not the biggest fan, necessarily, of that type of film and I thought it was important that Jack’s story not be obscured with whatever my struggles were. But I think the filmmaker in me wanted the story to be as compelling and dramatic as it could be and feeling, hoping that if I did tell the story from my perspective and open myself up that perhaps that would help involve people on a more emotional level. Like Aristotle said that the purpose of theatre--or film by extension--is to bring about catharsis. I just wanted it to work on an emotional level.
I think a really interesting choice you made was to not reveal your agenda until the very end. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. Well, I do talk throughout the film about how I’m going on the road with my Dad trying to get some time together and hoping to talk you know one-on-one. Then there’s scene where we’re looking for that house and we can’t find it and I kind of ask, “So, you don’t want me to ask any questions?" And he says, “Well, you know, I guess you can if you want.” At that point, he’s already kind of resisting the process, you know, of having this dialogue. And so, we tried to have it where it’s a building thing throughout the film. Maybe it’s too subtle.
Because actually what happened was I followed him around shooting him mainly onstage and at shows for a long time, but we could never really do interviews in the context of being on the road. I mean, he’s had two records out in the last two years, both nominated for Grammys, that he has to tour real heavily for. Crazy touring schedule. It made it really hard. It was a big thing for me because I was realizing that, “My god, we can never really sit down and talk,” and maybe now, finally in the context of this film, we can. And yet, it was as usual just constant activity and chaos and wherever my dad is, there’s always 100 people coming by to sweep him off on some adventure. Finally, kind of at the end of my stay in California, we sat down and did basically two long interviews. But everything else with him is him onstage talking pretty much. Or backstage.
Well, your frustration definitely comes through in the film.
That’s been my hope. And the hope that even if it wasn’t exactly clear what we’re trying to talk about in the motor home, that the important thing is just that how difficult it is just trying to communicate and that struggle and the hope that people would just sense the frustration.
Why do you think your dad, who has such an inability to communicate his emotions with you, can so easily mass communicate them with an audience?
He’s ramblin’ 24-7. He wakes up ramblin’, he goes to sleep ramblin’. There’s nothing else. And I don’t know why it is. He can be very intimate with an audience in ways that he sometimes cannot be one-one. Which is why this was such a perfect way for us to communicate through this film. It worked! (laughs) But, I don’t know? He’s so unique. I mean if you spent a day with him from dawn til dusk, he just never stops, you know? It’s very entertaining, but if you’re a wife or a daughter trying to communicate with him about some mundane details of daily life or something emotional, he communicates it in a very different way. It’s almost like talking in code and sometimes I feel like I’m trying to talk about something, and he’ll just lapse into this long ramble that seems so off the subject. But sometimes I feel like it ends up being not so off the subject. It’s almost as if he’s speaking in metaphors constantly or something. He’s amazing. And it’s frustrating as his daughter, but what a character, you know? Dave van Ronk put it very well in the movie, and I agree.
In the movie, van Ronk said something like, “The world may have lost another good family man, and that’s sad, but they’ve gained Ramblin’ Jack. And I’ll take Ramblin’ Jack.” You agree?
Wow. So, how has this experience been, screening the film in competition at Sundance with your dad in attendance?
It was really intense. And wonderful. So wonderful. To get to watch the film with my father after looking at it every day for two years, to get to share with him such an emotional thing and to see it through his eyes.
A lot of people have kind of tried to do this with my dad before and had difficulties. It was important to tell my dad’s story in its entirety. That sort of lifelong frustration with the way he’s whole career has been kind of reduced to being the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. And trying to find a way and carve out some time for me and my dad and build some closeness, and boy, did it work! Better than I ever even thought it even could’ve! I mean, here it’s been amazing.
And it’s kind of nice that American roots music is finally getting the tip of the hat it deserves.
Yeah. It’s nice. Somehow we have to stave off repetitive mind-numbing electronic like broken-computer, broken-telephone sounds as long as possible. (scathingly sarcastic) Electronica is a very rich musical genre. It’s weird if there’s no band. Like, where’s the band? I think it’s of the devil.
How do you really feel about it, Aiyana?
Jack is hip. You don’t get much hipper than Jack. My dad did this tour with his label, Hightone Records, with these pretty cool guitar-slinging folksingers of his ilk--Tom Russell, Chris Smither and Dave Alvin. That was a cool tour. In fact, two of our performances in the film, two of the best, “Don’t Think Twice” and “1913 Massacre” came from a night with the Monsters of Folk. The Monsters are just out-of-frame, but they’re sitting all around him. They kept joking that they were polar opposites of the Lilith Fair.
So now you’re working on a documentary about your mom?
My mom has had a lifelong interest in American Indians--Indian culture, spiritual things, otherworldy things in general. She’s only kind of half-here. She’s been working with them. She’s been apprenticing to be a shaman with the Waichul Indians of the Sierra Madre in Mexico for about sixteen years, and Dick (Dahl) I have done some documenting of her.
Is that where the name “Aiyana” comes from?
It’s an American Indian name, and it means “The Flower That Blooms Forever.”
Speaking of history, what’s on the horizon?
I have this script I haven’t quite been able to finish because I’ve been so darn busy with this film and I hope to finish soon--in the next couple of months. Tour of Misery, a black comedy. It’s kind of based a little bit on this family of somebody I know, but who’s not my family, so that’s the important thing--yhat I shouldn’t do something about my family. I need a break from that.