October 16, 2009

JOHN JACOB NILES - I Wonder As I Wander (1957) + The Ballads (1960)

A showman with powerful abilities, John Jacob Niles sang in what he called a "mountain tenor," and Bob Dylan described as:

a bone chilling soprano voice. Niles was eerie and illogical, terrifically intense and gave you goosebumps. Definitely a switched-on character, almost like a sorcerer. Niles was otherworldly and his voice raged with strange incantations.
Henry Miller, in his usual dry and indifferent tone, describes John Jacob Niles, in Plexus, as having:

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... 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.
This John Jacob Niles was the same man who always wore such great looking boots and rarely shared the stage with anyone else.  He claimed he could lie in bed and spit on the ceiling, and would sometimes sing "The Hangman" with a noose around his neck.  He was a performer on and off the stage, and seemed proud of his eccentricities.  When he performed the traditional murder ballad "Pretty Polly," he sang it in first person as if he himself was the killer. When the climactic moment came, he would pull out a case knife and stab repeatedly into Polly's imaginary chest until the audience could actually see "her heart's blood flow."

The other John Jacob Niles was the Appalachian music collector and performer of traditional ballads who was rediscovered in the 1950's folk revival and then, subsequently, deemed "inauthentic" by an emerging establishment of academic folklorists. 

While Niles recorded meticulous notes of every folk song he heard and of the people who sung it, they were not notes valued for their scientific detail or rigorous attention to date or location.  When he finally released THE BALLAD BOOK OF JOHN JACOB NILES in 1960, the variants he provided of folk traditionals were not taken seriously by the folklorist establishment.  In his book, culled from over 50 years of collecting, the people he describes sound as mythical as the songs themselves. Another reason, Niles' folkie cred was compromised was the fact that he had sued and won the rights to songs he had claimed to "collected," but was able to show in his meticulous notebooks that he had, in fact, composed them entirely himself.

Niles began collecting folk songs from his Appalachian neighbors as early as 1910 when he was just a teenager, and would take jobs in the outskirts so he could collect songs from the people on his off-time.  But Niles was also a songwriter, inspired both by opera and folk music alike.  He might only obtain a snippet of music from a girl singing to herself, and write the rest of the song the way he saw fit.  Or he might play the folk traditional the way it was first written down in his journal..  There was little concern for folk music or its authenticity in those early days. 

He fashioned his famous dulcimers after those he found in the mountains.  But he crafted them as "Nilesimers" to fit his own personal needs.  The sound was less important than the theatrical value, and he played it a lot like Picasso's "Blue Guitar," clutching it to his chest and often treating it like a dying lover when the appropriate song was performed. 

Frantz Fanon spoke of the way autonomous culture ends abruptly when its things become canonized and tacked to their proper times and places, particularly if by an outside culture.  "Authentic" culture only exists when it has no value added to it, when it is allowed to grow, mutate, and warp itself without any sense of self-consciousness.  While Niles led others to believe his most famous songs, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" and "Go 'Way From My Window," were "collected" rather than his own written compositions, in making the music his own, he was more true to so-called folk culture than if he were merely subservient to its perceived essence.  

The authentic folk players died in obscurity.  We are left with Harry Smith's ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC (1952 ) and performers like Niles and Guthrie who interepreted folk culture for us.  For his part, Niles grew up in Kentucky around the "folks" themselves, but he also studied music in Paris, sang opera in Chicago, and performed on the radio.  He acquired the bulk of his folk music collection in the 30s when he signed on as chauffeur and porter for the famous photographer, Doris Ulmann.  She was working on a portrait of the Appalachian people in a time when their culture was considered to be dying off in all its isolated, impoverished splendor.  To see the people Niles collected music from, look no further than 'The Appalachian Photographs of Doris Ulmann,' compiled and published by Niles himself in 1971. 

I Wonder As I Wander - Carols & Love Songs (1957)

The Ballads of John Jacob Niles (1960)


Michael said...

This needs a comment - THANK YOU SO MUCH for making these available. The Appalachian dulcimer was my first instrument that began a life immersed in music at age 14. Niles was a great American treasure and deserves to be remembered.

Michael said...

Ooohhh, darn dang damn! There is one corrupt song from the two albums: "Little Mattie Groves", song 10 from LP 1 of "Ballads of..."

I would be so grateful if you could repost this one song.

BTW, some trivia: the song is also known as "Little Musgrave", and was covered beautifully and very differently by the great Irish folk band Planxty. Can send it if you like (I'd post a link here).