"He owes me $12."
Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the folk singer, is 85 years old. He sits on a couch in a small dressing room upstairs at Hugh's Room, a comfortable acoustic-music venue for the supper-club set in west-end Toronto. He is impish, round-shouldered and fairly adorable, with a red cravat, a full head of snowy-white hair and a story or seven on his mind. Right now he's talking about Bob Dylan.
"He owes me $12," he goes on, "but that's okay." He'd been asked about Dylan's recent winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he figures Bob deserves it – "I've always thought his songs were beautifully put together, though I don't try to understand what the words mean" – and that the award would fetch him a pretty penny.
When he mentions Dylan's pile of Grammy awards, Pulitzers and whatnots, Elliott's long-time road manager Rick Robbins, sitting nearby, shakes his head in agreement. "Bob's got enough belt buckles," he says.
And as for who is owed what, Elliott mentions (at the helpful prompting of Robbins) that he's been paid a great compliment by Dylan in his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One.
Which is true enough. Dylan devotes a good three pages to Elliott in his book, calling his old Greenwich Village pal the "King of the Folksingers," no less. Both Elliott and Dylan were Woody Guthrie acolytes. In fact, the two met in late 1961 when Elliott visited his ailing friend Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital.
"There was a fella there," says Elliott, in a slight drawl. "It was Bob Dylan. That's what he told me his name was."
Dylan let Elliott know that he had all of his English records and listed each of the songs he liked and how fond of his guitar playing he was. "So, naturally I liked him," Elliott says, with a grin. The two hit it off.
At one point during our conversation, Elliott has a small coughing spell. "Could I have a little bit of Jim Beam?" he asks. Robbins, heading off for water, quickly replies, "No." Elliott grins. "It's a little game we play," Robbins says, clearly not tired of the sport.
When asked about his most recent crossing of paths with Dylan, the old cowboy-song singer reckons it was four or five years ago, backstage at a concert in Berkeley, Calif., near where Elliott lives. "I said 'Good show, Bob,' and he said, 'Good to see you, Jack.'"
After the two exchanged some words of affection, Dylan out of the blue said, "912 Greens," which is the name of one of the few songs Elliott actually wrote. It's about a banjo-picker named Billy Faier, so Elliott told Dylan that Faier was alive and well and living in Texas. (Faier has since died.)
"Well, when I told Bob that," Elliott says, "he just looked off in the distance and said 'Well, whaddya know, Billy Faier, whaddya know,' and then he just walked away to his tour bus. That was the end of the conversation."
Elliott says all that with a bemused expression and with the added bonus of a fine Dylan impression. Impersonation – there was a lot of that going on back in the day.
Friends of Elliott would tell him that Dylan was stealing his style, but Elliott didn't mind. He felt kind of honoured. And besides, Elliott himself was doing an accurate approximation of This Land is Your Land singer Guthrie.
"I got so used to it, I forgot how to be any other way," says Elliott. "Even Woody would say, 'Jack sounds more like me than I do.'"
Later, on stage, Elliott of course sounds like an octogenarian version of his young self. Wearing a red bandana around his neck and sporting a black cowboy hat – even though he was born in Brooklyn, as a teen he wanted to be a cowboy and briefly ran off to join a rodeo – the raconteur sings his old standbys, accompanying himself ably on an old acoustic flattop. He rap-sings Talking Sailor, he yodels some Jimmie Rodgers, he tells a great story about Les Paul.
Ironically he is the most Elliott on Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. A long time ago, at the Gaslight Café, Elliott had performed the song, with its impressed composer in the audience. "I relinquish it to you, Jack!" Dylan shouted when the number was done.
Where Dylan sang Don't Think Twice with an edgy passive-aggression, Elliott sang and still sings the breakup song with gentle acceptance and less judgment.
Dylan gave up a song because Elliott had made it his own. Forget about the $12 – the debt's been paid. Don't think twice, Bobby Dylan.