The authenticity trap: How did folk music end up in such a paradoxical place? In 1946, a Jewish boy named Elliot Adnopoz was growing up in Brooklyn. Although his father was a surgeon at a local hospital and wanted his son to follow him into medicine, young Elliot had his heart set on a different profession: he wanted to be a cowboy. When Elliot was 15, he ran away from home with two friends to join the only professional rodeo east of the Mississippi. Even though it was a matter of months before his parents caught up to him and reeled him back to Brooklyn, the damage had been done—Elliot had developed a fascination with the singing cowboys of the rodeo. In other word, the music bug had bitten. Once back home in the big city, Elliot began to teach himself how to sing and play the guitar.
If this sounds like the beginning of a story about a misfit Brooklyn teen trying to escape middle-class angst through folk music, then you wouldn’t be quite right. But you wouldn’t be quite wrong either. (We’re heeding the famous dictum of the reporter Stoddard in the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, we should print the legend.) In the case of this particular Brooklyn boy, generations of folk music enthusiasts have followed that principle. For while the name “Adnopoz” doesn’t mean much to the average folk fan, the name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” signifies a man who is more or less a demigod. The legend, it seems safe to say, won the battle. Elliott, of course, is Adnopoz, albeit transformed by culture, music, and the curious power of the public imagination. The name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” conjures a world of cowboy wonders and hobo life that could never have been conveyed by a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.