I make no secret of my deep love for horse-riding, Levi’s-wearing, hay-lifting cowboys. I’ll readily admit that my heart soars every time I catch a glimpse of a boot under sensible jeans.
For the longest time, I assumed that enough Jewish mothers had followed Willie Nelson’s warning to not let their babies grow up to be cowboys that I would one day have to make the heart-wrenching choice between my love for cowboys and my love of Judaism.
But that all changed when I saw Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese on Netflix.
Scorcese’s pseudo-documentary chronicles Dylan’s 1975 concert tour and features interviews with some of the prominent figures the iconic Jewish musician worked with. Out of the cast of colorful characters Dylan managed to collect, one stood out to me above the rest: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. When I heard him sing off-key, and felt my heart go pitter-patter at the sight of his cowboy hat, I immediately googled what I hoped to be true: Is Jack Elliott Jewish? And wouldn’t you believe it, not only is this 88-year-old man the musically gifted cowboy of my dreams (dayenu) but also Jewish!
That’s right folks: He may be at the dawn of his ninth decade and covered by AARP, but I’ve finally found the NJC (Nice Jewish Cowboy) of my dreams.
Let me bring you up to speed on my rodeo cowboy, my Jewish American treasure, Mr. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
1. This bronco was born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn, New York. His mother Florence Rieger was a school teacher, and his father, Abraham Adnopoz, was a prominent doctor and surgeon.
2. His first rodeo was at Madison Square Garden to watch Gene Autry and the Backlit Bulls, which frankly is not an event I realized one could host at Madison Square Garden.
3. Determined to be a cowboy, when he was 15 years old, he ran away to join Colonel Jim Eskew’s Rodeo and made it about three months working as a groom’s hand before his parents tracked him down and convinced him to finish high school (which seems reasonable).
4. Even though his parents had put his cowboy dreams on pause, Elliott’s journey with Eskew’s led him to meet Brahmer Rogers, a rodeo clown who inspired him to start focusing on music.
5. Back in Brooklyn, Elliott taught himself to play guitar. Eventually, he would learn to play from the likes of Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Jesse Fuller, and Champion Jack Dupree.
6. His most noteworthy instructor was folk legend himself, Woody Guthrie. Elliott met him after tracking Guthrie down to a hospital in Coney Island, where Guthrie had just had an emergency appendectomy.
7. Elliott ended up living in the Guthrie house for two years and traveling with Guthrie for some five years. By the end of their time together, Elliott emulated Woody’s style so well that Woody would say, “Jack sounds more like me than I do.”
8. After his travels with Guthrie, this New York Jewish cowboy became so enamored with Oklahoma — where Guthrie was from — that for about three years, he would tell people he was an Okie.
9. Elliott bought his first horse in 1958. As Elliott described him, “His name was Young Brigham. He was a Mormon. He was very opinionated [and] he didn’t like hippies.” This opinionated horse is the same one on Elliott’s 1970 album Young Brigham.
10. In late 1961 Guthrie introduced Elliott to a 19-year-old Bob Dylan, who told Elliott he had all his recordings and started rattling off the names of all his songs. Elliott thought Dylan was “kinda weird.”
11. But soon enough, Dylan became his protégé and picked up Elliott’s sharp and somewhat nasal way of singing. At Bob Dylan’s first gig, he was billed as the “Son of Jack Elliott.”
12 .Elliott has also been a huge inspiration for a plethora of other musical acts, including Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mick Jagger, the Grateful Dead, and The Band.
13. Beyond music, Elliott was also such a gifted actor that he filmed scenes in two movies (that were eventually cut). One in Cisco Pike, where he played a cowboy whose car flipped, and another in Breathless, an American remake of a French gangster movie where Elliott plays the guitar and sings as Richard Gere rans past.
14. In the 1980s, looking for a hobby outside of the music industry, Elliott got into ship restoration and now even has his own restored sailboat named the Elissa.
15. Elliott has won two Grammy awards — for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1996 for South Coast, and for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2010 for A Stranger Here. He reports that his two cats love the trophies and find them ideal to rub up against.
16. Unfortunately, this particular cowpoke does NOT have an Instagram or a Twitter, but never fear because he is on Myspace.
17. I was personally delighted to learn that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s nickname does not, in fact, derive from his many travels, but rather from his tendency towards long and rambling verbal meanderings.
18. And possibly most importantly for any good cowboy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott certainly knows how to rock a cowboy hat.
While I suspect that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott will not be the Nice Jewish Cowboy I settle down with, I am inspired by the knowledge that he exists, and I hope y’all are too.
Header Image: Singer Ramblin Jack Elliott, with his wife June, playing the guitar at an event in Stratford, London, circa 1960.Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images.