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Using a Camera to Get Closer to Dad

The daughter who grew up without him makes a film about folkie Jack Elliott.

August 27, 2000|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a Times staff writer

Legendary folk singer and storyteller extraordinaire Ramblin' Jack Elliott is never at a loss for words. In fact, in the award-winning documentary "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack," Elliott's longtime friend Kris Kristofferson jokes that the folkie got his nickname not because of his nomadic wanderings, but from his rambling conversations.

But he has been at a loss when it comes to talking with his daughter, filmmaker Aiyana Elliott, who directed, produced and co-wrote the documentary that opened Friday. During the three years she spent making the film, she tried repeatedly to get Elliott to open up and talk about their relationship. He never would.

After completing the film, Aiyana, who was born in 1969, came to the conclusion that their relationship would never change. Elliott would never talk about the fact that he was a less than fantastic father, that he was barely around while she was growing up. And she still didn't know him even as an adult.

"I felt I would have to accept our relationship as it is," she says, during a recent joint interview with her father in Los Angeles.

"Making the movie was very difficult. But then since completing the film, though, I think we have had good talks. I think we had a big breakthrough about six days ago."

Elliott, who at 69 resembles Gene Kelly in his later years, perks up when Aiyana mentions the breakthrough.

"Where was that?" he asks her. "Was I there?"

Trying to find out about the breakthrough takes a while as Elliott lives up to his ramblin' reputation.

Question: So how did the breakthrough happen?

"I don't know," says Aiyana, looking over at her father, who is sitting next to her in a conference room at the office of the film's publicists. "Maybe because my other dad was there. Maybe that helped."

"He's always very helpful," adds Elliott. "I call him my brother-in-law for lack of a better term."

"He's Jerry Kaye," explains Aiyana. "In the movie, we call him a friend, he was a friend of Jack's, but he's more than that.

"Jerry, he was the real hero of this story," says Aiyana. "The fact that Jerry provided some great stability enabled me to appreciate my dad for what he had to offer."

Question: Well, what happened six days ago?

"We were in New York for the premiere," says Aiyana. "Jerry was there."

"That was a big thing," pipes in Elliott. "I was thrilled with that."

Question: So what happened at the premiere?

"We were in New York and Jerry was there and we were sitting around and my dad just started telling me he appreciated what I was doing," says Aiyana, beaming ever so slightly as she glances over at her dad. "He thought we had gotten to know each other better making the movie and he had gotten to respect me and what we had done."

A pervading feeling of sadness prompted Aiyana Elliott to document her father's colorful life and career.

"I don't know why, but I get really sad when I think of a time when he might not be around," she says, as her father caresses her arm. "I think part of it is because my dad is somebody who has lived life to the fullest and really enjoys life and because there is nobody around to tell the stories he's telling. There is no one like him."

Staring at the window, Elliott interrupts his daughter: "I am going to have to write some songs," he proclaims. "The time has come to try to write some songs. I don't know what it is about me, lazy I guess. I don't have a typewriter."

*

Ramblin' Jack Elliott is his own creation.

He was born Elliott Adnopoz 69 years ago in Brooklyn, the son of a middle-class Jewish doctor. Young Elliott felt out of place in Brooklyn, where his parents wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps. He fell in love with westerns as a little boy, attended rodeos and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. At 15, he ran away from home for three months and joined a rodeo where he learned to play a guitar.

Hearing the late, great folkie Woody Guthrie on the radio in 1950 changed Elliott's life. He sought out the plain-spoken troubadour, and ended up living at Guthrie's house and honing his craft. Traveling the U.S. performing, Elliott ended up become partners with an Oregon banjo picker named Derroll Adams. After marrying the first of five wives in 1954, Elliott toured Europe, becoming the toast of England.

In 1961, he returned to the U.S., where he had become a legend among the burgeoning folk crowd in Greenwich Village. Considered the best flat-picking folk guitarist, Elliott balked at the commercialization of folk music and remained a pure folk artist, though it meant eking out a living as a wandering minstrel. And along the way, Elliott battled booze and drugs.

After a 20-year absence from recording, Elliott won his first Grammy in 1996 for his "South Coast" album and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998 by President Clinton. Elliott still plays about 60 concerts a year, though he admits he's tired of all his ramblings.

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