coffee and liqueurs we would sometimes listen to John Jacob Niles'
recordings. Our favorite was 'I Wonder As I Wander,' sung in a
clear, high-pitched voice with a quaver and a modality all his
own. The metallic clang of his dulcimer never failed to produce
ecstasy. He had a voice which summoned memories of Arthur, Merlin,
Guinevere. There was something of the Druid in him. Like a psalmist,
he intoned his verses in an ethereal chant which the angels carried
aloft to the Glory seat. When he sang of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
they became living presences. A sweep of the hand and the dulcimer
gave forth magical sounds which caused the stars to gleam more
brightly, which peopled the hills and meadows with silvery figures
and made the brooks to babble like infants. We would sit there
long after his voice had faded out, talking of Kentucky where
he was born, talking of the Blue Ridge mountains and the folk
from Arkansas..." --Henry Miller, Plexus pp. 366-367.
first encountered John Jacob
Niles (1892-1980) among the contents of a musty old folk anthology
album purchased at a used record store. The particular selection
included was his version of "The Hangman", nestled among
songs by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and other folk artists more familiar
to my generation. Hearing Niles for the first time was a little
jarring. Out of my stereo came his startling, other-worldly voice,
the sound of someone enraptured--or maybe possessed. He seemed
to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it.
That was the beginning
of my quest to discover exactly who this remarkable man was. The
search took some time and effort - most of Niles' recordings had
gone out of print before his passing in 1980. The details I unearthed
about his life from books and publications proved as intriguing
as his music. Accounts of his career revealed him to be an idiosyncratic,
opinionated, visionary and decidedly larger-than-life figure.
Niles was active earlier
and longer than just about any noteworthy American folk artist of
this century. The sheer length of his career-- from the early 1900s
through the 1970s certainly qualified him to be "The Dean of
American Balladeers." Yet such a title makes him seem too staid,
too bloodless. Niles conveyed a sense of passion that comes through
on his recordings even now. He didn't preserve folk songs to display
them as museum pieces. He revived and reanimated them with immediate,
palpable emotion. And just as his touch lent something to the songs,
the songs seemed to transform him as well.
There's a timelessness
to Niles and his music that goes beyond his importance as a historical
figure. For me, his recordings conjure up a distant, archetypal
America like no other singer ("folk" or otherwise) has
ever done. Niles came of age in the early 20th Century, and the
unabashed sentimentality and romanticism of that era comes across
in his work. Beyond that, there are even older, more primal echoes,
as old as the ancient British sources of many of his ballads. Maybe
that's why Niles' recordings have such a fascinating, even confrontational
quality to them--the voice and the songs harken back to feelings
rarely expressed in music anymore.
Niles was a exceptionally
productive individual until the end of his long life, whether he
applied himself to fashioning dulcimers, composing classically-based
music or tending to his farm. Among his greatest creations was the
persona of John Jacob Niles.
Sorting through the
archives of Niles memorabilia at the University of Kentucky in Lexington,
I had the sense of a man very much aware of the legacy he would
leave behind. I saw this in the photo portraits taken of him from
youth through old age--there was a poise and presence in them, suggesting
a self-awareness and a jaunty sort of confidence. Niles took on
and lived out his role completely. More than adopting an image,
I believe he was responding to a call.
carried with it a sense of responsibility. Niles said in interviews
that he felt it was his duty to preserve and popularize American
musical folklore. This sounds old-fashioned, and it was. Niles was
an educated, sophisticated man, a bit more than the homespun "Boone
Creek Boy" from Kentucky that he liked to call himself. Nevertheless,
he remained close to his heritage even as he mingled with the worldly
likes of Gertrude Stein and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As an artist
and as a man, he stood fro certain values: individuality, resourcefulness,
pride in his nation's traditions. He lived by these verities and,
when he performed, he personified them.
The music of John Jacob
Niles is both intimate and universal, as familiar as a family legend
and as mysterious as the unreachable past. Still hard to categorize
or classify, his work resonates with a power that was rare in his
day, and remains so in ours.
From the liner notes of "The John Jacob Niles Collection".