Elliot Charles Adnopoz was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 1, 1931. Although his birth name and location are not generally associated with cowboys, the boy became fascinated with cowboys and at the age of 15 ran away from home to join a rodeo. Eventually, he would achieve a more cowboy-like handle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
The folksinger reportedly got his nickname from Odetta’s mother commenting on how Ramblin’ Jack tells rambling stories. But it is as an interpreter of folk songs that we recognize the man, who was largely influenced by his connections with Woody Guthrie.
Elliott’s daughter made an excellent documentary about Ramblin’ Jack’s career and their relationship. It is worth tracking down the 2000 film, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.
“Don’t Think Twice”
When thinking about Ramblin’ Jack’s songs, it is difficult to pick a favorite. But it is hard to top his interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”
Elliott tells a story about being snowbound, stuck in a cabin for three days after his wife ran off with another man. In the cabin, he had firewood, a bottle of whiskey, and a Bob Dylan record. So, in his pain, he listened to “Don’t Think Twice” for three days.
Finally, the snow melted and Elliott drove to New York City and went to the Gaslight, where it was open mic night. There, Elliott began playing the Dylan song he had learned in the cabin. Suddenly, in the dark audience, a man stood up. It was Dylan, who yelled, “I relinquish it to you, Jack!” Elliott finished the song, and he has played it ever since.
Elliott provides a weariness to “Don’t Think Twice.” Instead of interpreting it as an angry breakup song, he gives voice to an older man looking back through some years with regret. “Don’t Think Twice” is a great song when Dylan sings it; but it is a different great song with Elliott’s voice.
Below, Elliott plays “Don’t Think Twice” in 2008. Check it out.
Ramblin’ Jack remains an American treasure. Earlier this year, Folk Alliance honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. What is your favorite Ramblin’ Jack Elliott song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
The above two songs have two things in common. First, they are two covers of Bob Dylan songs admired by Dylan. Second, they both were inspired by Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s former girlfriend who died several days ago at the age of 67 from lung cancer. Rotolo began a three-year relationship with the young Dylan in summer 1961 when she was 17, and she participated in a 1963 photo shoot with Dylan and ended up on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. A few years ago, Rotolo wrote a memoir about the 1960s and her time with Dylan called, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties
Although you never may have heard her voice, Rololo appears on one of the most famous album covers of all time and inspired some classic songs. In 1962, Dylan was not happy that she was in Italy for several months, inspiring him to write the songs “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” By late 1963, Rotolo and Dylan were done, as she felt increasingly isolated from Dylan and his world of growing fame. In 1967, she married and later had a son.
Rotolo inspired other Dylan songs too. While she worked in the Civil Rights Movement, she told Dylan about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, leading him to write “The Death of Emmett Till.” After a fight with Rotolo and her sister, Dylan wrote the angry “Ballad in Plain D,” leading him to apologize for the lyrics years later: “My mind it was mangled, I ran into the night. / Leaving all of love’s ashes behind me.” She inspired other songs to varying degrees, as songwriters incorporate various feelings and experiences.
The first song posted above is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” one of the songs Dylan wrote while Rotolo was in Italy in 1962. Dylan did not want her to go on the eight-month trip, and as you can tell from his song, he was angry about it. When Rotolo returned to Greenwich Village, several of Dylan’s folk-singer friends were mad at Rotolo, who they felt should not have abandoned Dylan for the trip. When she was around, they would make a point of singing Dylan’s angry songs about her, including “Don’t Think Twice.” The song lists each offense of a former lover, and then dismisses the offense and the lover with the great passive-aggressive line, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, You could have done better but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted my precious time, But don’t think twice, it’s all right.
In Dylan’s version, and I’m sure in the versions Rotolo heard from Dylan’s friends upon her 1963 return to Greenwich village, the song is an angry song, like so many of Dylan’s great songs. You can feel the sting she must have felt at hearing the song going around. But Ramblin’ Jack Elliott finds the heartache underlying the song. Dylan recorded the song in his early 20’s, an age when we are full of passion and anger at the world and those who offended us. Ramblin’ Jack, though, sings the song as an old man, looking back with loss, regret, and wisdom. One time Dylan was so moved by Ramblin’ Jack’s performance of the song, he reportedly told the singer something to the effect of “Take the song, it is yours.” The recording above is off of the soundtrack to The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, an excellent documentary.
The other song above is “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” which Dylan also wrote while Rotolo was in Italy. Unlike “Don’t Think Twice,” it is not angry and tells of missing a lover: “But no one and nothing else can touch the beauty / That I remember in my true love’s eyes.” This version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is sung by Elvis Presley from his From Nashville To Memphis- Essential 60’s Masters box set.
Dylan once said that that Presley’s version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” was his favorite cover of all of his songs. Because Dylan is not one who regularly heaps praise on artists who cover his songs, it is interesting that he admired cover versions of these songs inspired by Rotolo’s 1962 absence. Perhaps he liked that the other artists brought something new to the songs besides the anger and the pain he felt, or perhaps he believed their distance allowed them to capture the emotions better. Either way, they are great songs in both Dylan’s versions and these covers. Although the singer in “Don’t Think Twice” tells the lover that she wasted his precious time, through the lens of time, it is clear that Rotolo did not waste anybody’s time.
What do you think about Rotolo’s influence and these songs? Leave a comment.