Caffe Lena wasn’t Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s first rodeo, that’s for sure. Long before he debuted at the storied folk establishment in 1963, Elliot Charles Adnopoz, the Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish doctor, ran away from home at age 15 and joined the JE Ranch rodeo—the only such outfit traveling east of the Mississippi—to become one of their riders. There he worked alongside real-deal cowboys who could recall the wide-open spaces that existed before barbed-wire fences brought long cattle drives to an end in the 1930s. One of the JE Ranch clowns, Brahmer Rogers, was also a guitarist and banjo picker, and instilled in him a love of the Western songs that the trail hands often sang on horseback to calm their herds at night. Located by his worried parents after three months, Elliott came back home to finish high school, but he never returned to a conventional life. In 1950, he met Woody Guthrie, traveled with the Dust Bowl balladeer, and learned his music.
Elliott turned his hand to performing when the folk boom hit later in the decade. Now 79, he ambled onstage wearing a black 10-gallon hat and sunglasses, as he explained, to shield his eyes from the stage lights. Later, he asked the audience to applaud sparingly to protect his failing hearing. In his opener, a flatpicked version of “San Francisco Bay Blues,” it became evident that, although Elliott could still play guitar well, his once-fine singing had gone far downhill, racking up a string of vocal felonies including going off-key, letting his voice crack and half-talking.
But this wasn’t a performance that rose or fell on musical finesse. Elliott is still a consummate entertainer, a master of the coffeehouse monologue with a repertoire of hard-hitting songs about hard-hit people. A man who can recall events like Jack Kerouac reading aloud to him all of On the Road in a three-day sitting.
The best moments of his first set were “Diamond Joe,” a song about a cowboy who gives a young wrangler a job on the range, and Woody Guthrie’s “The Ludlow Massacre,” a labor song about a 1911 Colorado atrocity in which union busters set fire to a tent encampment of striking miners and shot them as they tried to escape, killing 13 children in the act. Also notable was the Carter Family’s “Engine 143,” the tale of a train wreck on the C&O line in West Virginia (the same route where the legendary John Henry met his end) in which the engineer was killed.
In the second set, Elliott’s standouts were “Tom Joad,” Guthrie’s 13-verse condensation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, and the encore, “South Coast,” a ballad about a California gambler who wins a wife in a card game and then meets an ill fate.
Even for Caffe Lena, a venue that consistently offers fine music, this was a rare and memorable night.