A few months ago, one of my favorite radio personalities, Don Geronimo, retired after nearly three decades of being on the air, both as a DJ and as a more talk-oriented personality. On top of the many, many hours of entertainment he gave me in my afternoons, he mentioned something that I've thought a lot of since, even though it seems entirely obvious. He once said that any great radio personality, rather than choosing a persona for his broadcasts from a stock list of traits, instead crafted his own persona as a mishmash of his influences and heroes, eventually forming something that could be viewed as at least somewhat original and (hopefully) worth listening to. As long as you didn't outright steal your idol's entire act, but cherry-picked the parts of his act that worked for you, you were paying homage more than committing an act of theft.
This makes sense, of course - very few people arrive with a fully formed personality in any particular walk of life - and yet it does raise a few thorny issues, the least of which is how to properly pay tribute to said heroes once your career has taken off and you've reaped the rewards of your own fame. A mere mention of thanks might satisfy some people, but that sort of seems like a cheap reward for having crafted your own career, carved out your own niche, and then had some unknown person leap into the fray, having absorbed some of what it was that gave you your career, and become famous themselves as a result. It's hard to say what can be done for you, but it does seem like you're owed something, right? And if your career has taken a bad turn and you're all but relegated to the dustbin of history, then you damn well better get something, right?
I haven't seen The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and I'm only going on what I've heard and read about the movie, but I would think that Elliott probably has a thing or two to say about this very issue. After all, the documentary states, it was Elliott that taught Dylan all about Woody Guthrie (having been his longtime traveling companion) and helped him mold his folk style into something closer to the master's. Then, once Dylan had become a superstar, he cast Elliott aside and left him to a life of relative obscurity and poverty, not making his debt to Elliott known for many years. All that fame, all those albums sold and shows attended, and it never would've happened if Elliott hadn't shown Dylan a thing or two about finger picking.
This does seem to be overstating things, and I'm sure even Elliott wouldn't go as far as to say that Bob Dylan never would have existed without him. Even so, it does make you wonder why Dylan wouldn't have even so much as thrown Jack a bone while his star was on the rise and Elliott's was on the, well, whatever it was. Maybe there was something between them that only they could ever know about. Maybe Dylan's just a huge asshole (there are probably a few people that would back up that statement). Either way, it does seem rather shabby for Dylan to treat Elliott that way, and it kind of puts a damper on things. Not a total damper, but a damper nonetheless.
Of course, Dylan fan I am, there has to be an "on the other hand", and here's the best I can come up with. Elliott, by his own ambition, never had the ambition and drive that Dylan did to make it to the top and become a star. He obviously saw something in Dylan (as Woody Guthrie had), at least enough to satiate Dylan's constant hunger for all things Woody in the early days. And, as has been noted many times, that secondhand schooling in Guthrie's style paid dividends, as Dylan managed to get his foot in the door of folk music and slowly morphed into the phenomenon of the 60s. So, in that sense, Dylan HAS paid proper tribute to Elliott. Without him, the Bob Dylan that we know today would exist in a very, very different form, and quite possibly not the legendary form he exists in right now. Again, that's not to say that Dylan wouldn't have made it big without Jack, or made it at all, but Jack had his role in Dylan's rise, the same way Tom Hammond did, the same way Suze Rotolo did, and the same way Joan Baez did. Elliott had a fantastic career, helped shape a giant in the world of American music, and deserves all the praise in the world for both.
Speaking of influences, we have the one moment on Dylan's debut album when he takes a second to give a shout out, and it happens on "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", the one song on Bob Dylan that Bob thought enough of to anthologize on Biograph, his exceptional 1985 retrospective. Over a fingerpicked intro (see? Elliott's fingerprints already at hand!), Dylan mentions that folk singer Eric Von Schmidt taught him this song while the two were hanging out, either in New York or Cambridge, MA. He doesn't mention that yet another influential folkie, Dave Van Ronk, also had a hand in arranging the song; Van Ronk's influence on Dylan, while not as properly documented as Elliott's, was also considerable, and you'd think that Dylan would've had something to say about that at some point. I'm sure he has, actually; just wanted to get you all more fired up about what a dick Bob is.
The version on Dylan's debut is sparse and lovely, entirely finger picked, to match the stripped-down romantic sentiments of the verses. He only sings three verses, two of which are the same (the song's about 2:30 long), and the language is so basic, it's amazing to think that somebody actually wrote them in the first place. That doesn't take away from how good the song is; it's just honestly surprising that there are so few lines. The melody carries a lot of the song, actually - it's a really sweet melody, too, sort of bouncing from note to note with the sprightly energy of any good finger picked tune. It feels like a throwaway, but it's definitely one of Bob Dylan's main selling points, mainly because Dylan isn't trying so hard to impress his invisible audience, something even other highlights on the album occasionally do. Here, Bob knows the song needs a light touch, and he supplies it expertly.
I suppose the regard Dylan holds the song in is best illustrated by the fact that he included it in the electric portion of his infamous 1966 world tour (and, actually, in the 1965 electric shows as well), a strange inclusion given any number of original electric tunes he could've pulled out. The 1966 version, probably because the song isn't as striking as the others included in the setlist, kind of gets lost in the shuffle; a quick respite before Bob lets loose with "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues". However, that's not to say that Dylan doesn't pay the song some heed - starting with a blaring harmonica intro, the band blasts its way through the song, carried by Mickey Jones' thumping, rapid-fire drumming and Robbie Robertson's economical guitar fills. Dylan adds his own lyrics, sharper and more Dylan-like than the original, possibly to flesh the tune out, but just as possibly to make the song more his own (you know, outside the fact that he turned it into a powerful rocker). As galling as the whole electric business must've been to the outraged folkies in the audience, it must've been even more horrible to hear Dylan take a well-known traditional, one he performed on his debut album, for Pete's sake, and turn it into a wild melange of swirling organ, biting guitars, and Dylan's drugged-out sneer. And the worst part, of course, is that it sounds great.