[I wrote this in 1998. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.]
"'Round about 1953
I went down to New Orleans
Perhaps I should say, many years ago"
Ramblin' Jack Elliott had just turned 22 in the summer of 1953, when the events took place which he chronicles in "912 Greens" (assuming they did take place, which is somehow both irrelevant and crucial). To be honest, I'm not sure he was "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" yet, 'round about 1953. He first recorded the song for the album Young Brigham, which was released in 1968. Thirty years later, the song is as timeless as when it was recorded. The story Elliott relates always happened "many years ago."
In "912 Greens," Elliott tells the tale of his trip south with some buddies to look up Billy Faier, "a 5-string banjo picker" who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The vocals are casual; Elliott doesn't sing until the very last stanza, instead he just talks over a lovely guitar accompaniment, and the lyrics feel made up on the spot. It is impossible to imagine Jack sitting down with a pencil to put the words on paper. At times he stumbles a bit, repeats himself, and chuckles under his breath as he remembers some moment from his adventures. Even as he spins his story, adding just the right detail to bring matters to light, he suggests that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other stories he could tell if he only had the time. As he says about Billy Faier,
"And the way we found him,
well that was a whole 'nother song
Let's just say we found Billy Faier"
Elliott was born in Brooklyn in 1931. His name at the time was Elliott Adnopoz. Apparently he wanted something different than might be expected for a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and so (depending on which story you believe, and there are many) he ran off to join the rodeo when he was still a teen. Somewhere along the way he changed his name to Buck Elliott; later he became "Jack" and later still, "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" (by which time he had indeed rambled). Also along the way he switched from traveling with a rodeo to traveling with Woody Guthrie, who was nearing the end of the "healthy" years that preceded his succumbing to Huntington's Disease. Woody and Jack had adventures; Elliott later became known as the premier interpreter of Guthrie's work, and for much of his early career he was perhaps known as much for being the heir to Guthrie's folk tradition as he was for anything. Clearly, Elliott Adnopoz had reinvented himself.
You could only get to 912 Toulouse Street by climbing over a fence. Once you got over, you found a concrete patio, in the midst of which was a banana tree. "Although I never did see no bananas hanging on it, as they said, it was a banana tree." Elliott is reinventing himself; his friends are reinventing reality. And succeeding: "as they said, it was a banana tree" is good enough for Jack. The house itself featured a balcony "that connected all the various different musicians' different various pads." That balcony is where reinvention takes place.
The sense of community in "912 Greens" is overpowering. Ramblin' Jack Elliott ... it sounds like the moniker of the last of the independents, a man with no home except the horizon. But when Jack sets off to ramblin', it's with his friends Frank and Guy, and they meet up with Billy Faier, who lives in a house where all the people and all the pads are connected. What makes this adventure so enticing is the ease with which Jack and the rest become friends, comfortable with each other and their different various pads. After a "tropical rainstorm" (I could talk about the three-legged cat, but that's a whole 'nother essay) in which Jack and "this girl there that had once been an ex-ballet dancer" (a bottomless phrase, to have once been an ex-anything) dance naked around the banana tree, everybody commences to "drinkin' Billy Faier's wine and gettin' acquainted." As Elliott talks and picks his guitar, gradually we realize that "gettin' acquainted" is the most important thing in the world. The various different people have different various pads, but the best part comes when we move onto the balcony and see our connections.
The sun comes up, everyone goes home over the back fence. "Stayed around 3 weeks in New Orleans," Jack tells us, "Never did see the light of day." It was many years ago. It could have been last month. And then he rambles. "And I never have been back," he adds. But every time Ramblin' Jack Elliott sings "912 Greens," everytime he comes to new people, everytime he "gets acquainted," he is indeed back in New Orleans.
As are we, back in New Orleans, when we listen to the song. There is no more beautiful ode to getting acquainted.