John Jacob Niles Sings American Folk Songs

On Niles, Miller and the Lost Music of the Last Millennium

"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 psalmodist, 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.


Henry Miller -- arch sensualist, literary rebel, connoisseur of arcane lore and eccentric personalities -- knew the voice of a mystic when he heard it. It only made sense that a writer as steeped in the esoteric as Miller was would find the streak of sorcery in Niles' music.

In some respects, these two great artists -- both of whom, strangely enough, were born in 1892 and died in 1980 -- were fairly dissimiliar. Niles was something of a patrician figure, a classy fellow who liked the common touch but was still very much a part of the old Kentucky gentry. Miller, of course, was an anti-establishment hero, his works banned as obscene in his native country for some 30 years. Niles' creative output -- and this includes everything from his music to his woodcarving -- displayed considerable discipline and craft, while Miller's writing had a sprawling, rambling quality that could fluctuate between precise description and tedious excess. Yet the bond between them was more profound than these differences: they both reached for the unearthly note, whether in a wildly surreal phrase or an achingly ancient melody.

Many people misunderstood who Miller was -- rather than some pornographic prophet of a new world, he was essentially a 19th Century sentimentalist who happened to be more honest in print than most of the writers of his generation. He came from an era when people seemed less afraid to feel deeply and didn't mind shedding a few tears during a stage melodrama. That quality was central to Niles' art as well. More than anything, he stood apart from other folk singers of his era (which, remember, spanned the 1910's through the 1970's) by virtue of the intense emotion of his music. His eerie high tenor produced shivers and perhaps a little embarrassment in his listeners -- there wasn't much that was cool, hip or "modern" in his singing style. As described in the paragraph cited above, Miller responded to the nakedness of expression in what Niles' did, a vulnerability that Miller in his own way sought to achieve in his writing.

It's fair to say that Niles knew that aspects of his performances were exaggerated, highly stylized for a 20th Century audience. But his work doesn't seem so odd in the context of the high and popular arts of earlier days: think of vaudeville, silent films, Victorian novels. And think also of opera, a truly bizarre form of creative expression where every gesture and aria is heightened beyond everyday expression. Niles sang with the Chicago Lyric Opera company for a time before his folk music career gained notice, and he retained an operatic touch as a singer and composer for the rest of his career. Did this invalidate his worth as a "folk" artist? Only if the listener is wedded to the concept of the rough-hewn Woody Guthrie style folkie as the only legitimate artist in the medium. It's been said that Niles sang the way the old American mountain balladeers would have wished to have sung if they'd had the training. I think there's truth in that. Niles's voice was an instrument that expressed deep, primal sentiment, which audiences of the 19th and early 20th Centuries had a craving for.

Niles and Miller both seem anachronisms when measured by the aesthetics of 2001 -- there's no detachment or irony in their work. They're not winking at their audiences or holding back emotion -- there's a palpable sense of risk of going too far and expressing too much. This not to say that there was no artifice in what they did. Niles created his troubadour persona very deliberately and re-wrote the folk material he collected to suit his tastes. Miller tampered with the facts of his life story in books that blurred truth and fiction to the point where the fantasies seemed more real than the actual events. But the emotional truth that both of them expressed was genuine. Niles' performing persona was utterly convincing no matter how melodramatic, just as Miller could interweave ugly personal confessions with absurd flights of fancy and make the whole thing convincing.

"Naive" seems a strange term to apply to either of these men. Maybe it's most accurate to say that both of them touched upon the naive sensibilities buried in their sophisticated audiences. There was a childlike quality to both of them, at least as artists. The fairy-tale courtship scene in Niles' version of "The Rovin' Gambler" isn't so different from the impulsive romanticism that Miller obsessed upon in his novels -- and if the destructive ends that a wild love affair can lead to are more evident in Miller's books, it's only because we never get to hear what happens to the Gambler and his bride in Niles' song. Miller and Niles don't offer guides to how to live in the grown-up world of rules. Rather, they celebrate deep, often childlike desires -- which, for some reason, the 19th Century had an easier time embracing without irony than people do today.

For all the wonders of the new millennium, there's a still a hunger for the truly inexplicable. These days, everybody knows too much for their own enjoyment, if not for their own good. The magician's job is getting harder all the time -- more to the point, it is becoming harder for audiences to allow themselves to fall under the magician's spell. Miller was correct in recognizing Niles as a magician who could, at least temporarily, rend the curtain of time and show jaded modern Americans the glories of a beautiful distant world.

-- Barry Alfonso



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