Hank and Pete, Jack and Janis - Tim Grimm
It was a blue car. Two tone. '49 Plymouth. My Dad got in the back seat. His Mom and Dad were up front, and they drove from their home in Auburn, IN down the dusty road to Buck Lake Ranch in Angola. It was late afternoon and they had tickets to a Concert. They were going to see Hank Williams. My Dad was 12 years old.
220 miles west, and 8 years later, my Mom walked to her high school in Ottawa, IL early one evening-- where her Dad, MacRae Shannon, was the principal and school superintendent. Mom went into the auditorium and waited with some friends for Pete Seeger to come onstage. She was 15.
I didn't get to know my Grandfather Shannon-- he died when I was five-- I knew he'd served in the Navy during WWII and was a communications officer on one of the first ships that sailed into Japan after the bombs were dropped. That little piece of family history made it's way into one of my songs, MY TURN. My Dad says that his father-in-law, MacRae, was a man of great integrity, with high standards and the belief in a well-rounded education. He also had a soft-spot for the underdog and a committed sense of justice. So, while Pete was being blacklisted, my Grandfather brought him to Ottawa for a community concert.
My first Concert that I can remember…? It wasn't in the Midwest. My Dad had a teaching Fellowship and we were on the west coast for the summer. It was in Golden Gate park- San Francisco. I remember a tall man-very tall- lean down to ask me if I'd like to see what I was hearing. I looked over at Mom and she said "Sure". I got up on this stranger's shoulders in the summer of 1967 and watched Janis Joplin. I was 7.
We had a big RCA cabinet record player when I was a kid. It could hold a lot of records on shelves behind sliding doors. I'm going to take just a few minutes to talk about 2 of those records behind the sliding doors. I was drawn to one record initially because of it's cover art. It was a folk art drawing on a pink background with tall green pine trees and a man in a wide brimmed hat walking, holding a gun, walking away from a woman lying on the ground. A dog was several steps ahead of the man. There was a lot for a young boy to imagine. This record came out in 1956-- a few years before I was born, and was entitled "BOWLING GREEN and other folksongs from the southern mountains". Twin 17 year old girls- The Kossoy Sisters-- singing in tight blood harmonies --were the artists. I soaked up the songs on that record- IN THE PINES, THE BANKS OF THE OHIO, LITTLE BIRDIE, WILLIE MOORE, ENGINE 143… and of course- I'LL FLY AWAY.
Cut ahead 47 years, and the twins release their 2nd record and attend the NERFA conference. I remember looking at the program after I checked in and seeing their names-- NO WAY, I thought. But yes, they were there-- sounding wonderful and I sat in the front row of their formal showcase and followed them around to some of their private ones… and they in turn came to some of mine and within the next year they went into the studio and recorded harmonies on a new- grad-based song of mine -- a murder ballad based on a semi-famous case in Ohio, entitled CELIA ROSE. What a thrill it was to have that happen. And most all of you are well aware of BROTHER WHERE ART THOU….In the film, it is The Kossoys version that is used. No one knew if they were still alive-- and no one knew that they still occasionally performed. I am so glad I was able to meet Irene and Ellen.
One of my very favorite records was an album with a photo of a grinning, squinting handsome young man in a tilted cowboy hat-- titled, JACK ELLIOTT. Ramblin' Jack. There could be books written about Jack (and Jack is scattered throughout dozens of books about other people), but his basic story was growing up in Brooklyn, running way from home to join the rodeo, and eventually at age 19, meeting and traveling extensively with Woody Guthrie. Jack soaked up the Guthrie songs and Woody at one point said, "He sounds more like me than I do." Jack went over to Europe in the mid-50's and toured for a few years, traveling on a Vespa with his wife June (James Dean's ex-girlfriend) and his banjo-playing pal Daryl Adams. They took Europe and especially the UK by storm. Jack introduced the songs of Woody Guthrie mixed in with early blues and cowboy songs to a whole generation of listeners and musicians to be. A young Bob Dylan, upon hearing Ramblin' Jack on record, proclaimed him (in his autobiography- CHRONICLES) " THE KING OF THE FOLKSINGERS".
Dylan went on to write, that he could never learn to play that well-- or sing that well. So, I grew up listening to that Jack Elliott record. And I was hooked. Flash ahead to 30 years ago. I'm a grad student in Ann Arbor-- my last year there in theatre. I'd heard about and began attending The Ark-- one of the storied and venerable Midwestern Folk Clubs. I got to see many of the musicians I'd grown up listening to and was introduced to some new ones as well. I went out one night to hear Jack, and the next morning I headed to the farmer's market and was leaving with my sack of groceries, when I glanced over at a cowboy looking fella leaning against a garage door near The Ark. He was watching people go by, but his big hat was tipped down just far enough that you couldn't see his eyes. He was leaning back, with one of his legs cocked so his boot heel rested up on the door. People just walked by, but I knew who he was, and I got up the nerve to walk up and introduce myself.
He tipped his hat up and squinted in the sun-- just like on his album cover and smiled. "You don't have an extra bicycle, do you ? I was hoping' to go on a bicycle ride." I said, well I could get one. And we spent the rest of the afternoon riding bikes in and around Ann Arbor. We finished up and he said, "You don't know where there's a swimming' pool, do you ?" I said-- I'd find one, and we did and went swimming. That was the beginning of a friendship that has now stretched 35 years.
I realized recently that I am the same age that Jack was when we first met. A few months after the swimming and cycling day, I noticed in the paper that the Newport Folk Festival was being brought back after a hiatus of some time. Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi Farina, Dave Van Ronk, Greg Brown, and numerous other performers would be there. And so would Ramblin' Jack. I got it into my head to drive out to Newport Rhode Island and attend the Festival and try to hook up with Jack.
When I arrived, I went to the gate nearest the stage and asked someone to please hand a note to Jack for me. Well, Jack remembered me, and in a manner of minutes I had a backstage pass to the Festival. Since then, I've travelled with him on many occasions-- as his road manager…. his opening act or co-bill…. but mainly I've travelled with him as a friend. You run the danger when you meet your idols-- that they're going to let you down. There is truth in that, but there's also the revelation that we're all human.
Late one summer, I got back from Europe on Jack's birthday- August 1st, and while in Chicago, saw a notice that he'd be at The Old Town School for a concert in early September. I found out that he'd planned to rent a car and drive himself from northern California to Denver and then on to the Midwest. I didn't think that was a good idea, so when the time rolled around, I took a train to Denver and drove him back to the Midwest myself. Jack is 88 and he's still on the road--doing what he began doing in his late teens with Woody. After Milwaukee we had a couple of days off and headed up to Manitawauk-- where we visited the maritime museum. If you didn't know-- Jack is into boats …. and trucks…. and lots of other interesting and obscure things. We closed the maritime museum one day and opened it the next.
At one point I walked into a separate room-- and when I found Jack he was leaning up against a sailboat on display and he was re-tying a knot off the mast. "They got this one wrong," he said. After Chicago and Ann Arbor, we headed back to my farm, where Jack could get a little r and r. I had to head back up to Michigan for a couple of shows and Jack needed to get to St. Louis and Kansas City. I asked my son, Connor, if he'd be up to being Jack's road manager, and he said, Yeah ! Connor is about the age that I was when I met Jack. When Connor got back from that adventure he was talking with his younger brother- Jackson, and he said, "You know-- that's what we're going to be doing in 30 years-- driving Dad around and gigging with him."