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.

23. The Ballad of Jack: The Story Without End

Jack sits on stage at the Bolinas Community Center, doing a fundraiser for KWMR.  It’s cold outside, late September, the ocean fog rolling in.  John Doe is coming on stage in a few minutes.

Back in the fifties, Jack was touring in England and played Brighton.  A young kid, now a resident of Bolinas, went to hear him there.  That night Jack told a long joke that rambled interminably.  It apparently wasn’t even that funny.  It was a shaggy dog story with no particular point and it ended with some punchline about goo goo.  Or something like that.  That young kid now old can no longer remember what Jack sang, but he remembers the joke to this day.

I remember playing Brighton, Jack says as he tunes his guitar.  It’s a good beach.  I guess everyone in their life at some time or other makes it to Brighton.  I remember Brighton. But I don’t remember the joke, he says.

This is a story without an end, he goes on.  It just has a beginning and a middle.  And we’re just at the beginning he says.

But don’t let it scare you none.  We’ll get there.  Soon enough, my friend.


3. Tale of the Boat

The Boat

Why, we go to sea.

The Boat arrived here in the Fall, towed up onto the property on an unplated trailer by 80 year old Jack in his one ton truck.  Brett and I pulled it by hand the last hundred feet to the  Room of Requirement.  Opening both french doors wide we ferried her in.  And for a few months now she has slumbered.  The nights long, the air chill.  The cats climbed on her and sometimes we checked in.  But mostly she just slept.  Jack has visited a few times and on each occasion he’s asked if he could visit her, just to see, just to lay his hands.

Walking about in the Room of Requirement, he’d gaze at her and touch her and he was pleased.

She’s just a Penguin Dinghy, if that.  She was built for placid eastern waters and can hardly withstand the gusts on San Francisco Bay.  On top of that what’s left of her is covered in lichen.  Her stern has been plowed with gashes.  What to say?  She may be more hole than anything else, but can any absences stoved in upon her negate her right to existence?

All the while Brett has been away out with the wind.  He restored a barn in Bolinas, and served at a Vipassana retreat and painted a mural and went to a movement workshop at Tamalpa.  He got a girlfriend and got a plan which shifted into another.  All good stuff.

The days have started to grow longer.  The daffodils and narcissus have come up, the locust is in full bloom along with the magnolias.  Spring appears at last to be here.  And now Brett has returned home.

Time has come for the restoration of the Boat.  The boat that came from Arlo Guthrie’s house.  The boat that rotted in Jack’s yard in Marshall for thirteen years.  The boat that harkens to an ancient childhood memory that belongs not to me.

Why do you assume any task?  Why do you refurbish or refashion anything?  Why with all the things yet to be done – rooms still to unpack, months of bookkeeping, gardens to be planted, work work work to be done, have we taken on this project?

But we don’t have an answer.  There is no why.  We do it because it’s there to be done.

And a faint trust in the belief that beauty near always arises from the foolish act.