John Jacob Niles : American Folk Singer

John Jacob Niles photo by George Kossuth

John Jacob Niles
Dean of American Balladeers

"Over 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.

I 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.

This "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.

--Barry Alfonso
From the liner notes of "The John Jacob Niles Collection"


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John Jacob Niles: The Songs of John Jacob Niles - sheet music at
John Jacob Niles: The Songs of John Jacob Niles Composed by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). Songbook for high voice solo and piano accompaniment. 102 pages. Published by G. Schirmer, Inc. (HL.50481076)
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