24. The Story of the Ark


Ramblin Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie in Washington Square, 1954

We sometimes arrive at self-definitions that really don’t mean that much.  I say I’m a writer, and I do write, every day, but just writing doesn’t fulfill all the requirements of the definition.  I also clean our pool, work in our garden, clean our house, cook our dinners, do work for non-profits, and have lots of ideas. But I would never call myself a pool boy, gardener, house cleaner, chef, community organizer, or thinker.  It leaves me kind of stuck.

In Jack’s case, when pushed into uncomfortable territory (asking to be interviewed, setting up his iCloud service), or when he just wants to say “bug off”, he’ll say, I don’t care about that.  I care about Trucks.  And I care about Boats.  That’s what I care about.

That, of course, is not his only self-definition but it’s one he’ll tactically rely on.  It shuts down the high fallutin people because they mostly don’t care too much about trucks.  And it’ll shut down all the others, because few people can talk boats the way that Jack can talk boats.

Today Jack boards a plane for a five week string of gigs on the east coast.  He’ll be playing in the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center with Jackson Browne, the Dropkick Murphys, Ry Cooder, Rob Wasserman, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams and a crowd of other people the Grammy Museum was able to round up in honor of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth.

What’s Jack doing there?

No matter how you cut it, the true answer can be kind of complicated.  Like the Boat, Jack absorbs near everything that he comes into contact with.  His photographic memory allows him to take in and then carry all manner of information near indefinitely:  boat lengths, dates, events, conversations, engine sizes, distances, you name it.  It also includes not just a body of music, but a manner of playing it.  And in this case, the manner of one particular person.

To talk about Woody Guthrie and Jack would be to layer myth upon myth upon myth.  I don’t want to muddy things.  But here’s one more layer of varnish.

Woody’s fate was spelled from the moment of his conception, sometime in October of 1911.  In a moment of passion his maternal and paternal DNA split and recombined, and the fetal being that we now know as Woody Guthrie, inherited a mutation of his IT15 gene that governs the Huntingtin protein.  Without his knowing, before even the moment of his birth, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was fated to die from Huntington’s chorea.

In the intervening years, though, between conception and death, something very important happened.  The vessel called Woody Guthrie, while plying the American waters, essentially fashioned and helped save a body of American folk culture.  He played with Lead Belly and chronicled the plight of Dust Bowl refugees.   He wrote protest songs and songs glamorizing the WPA and Columbia River projects.  He captured songs and materials from his travels and recorded them with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

By the time Woody had moved to Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, he had penned ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘Roll on Columbia’.  In New York he began to experience erratic mood swings.  Within a few years he would begin his descent into dementia.

It was at about this time that a young Jewish kid from Connecticut showed up and moved in with the Guthrie family.  The boy wanted to learn folk music and he decided to learn the music and playing style that Guthrie carried within him.  I wouldn’t hazard to guess yet what those years in Brooklyn were like or how they even came to be.  But I can imagine the feeling of a photographic mind coming into contact with Guthrie’s deep well of experience and intelligence.

The waters were rising and the situation required an Ark.  And that Ark came in the form of Ramblin Jack Elliott.

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