John Jacob Niles,
The Ballads of John Jacob Niles
(Essential, 2007)

If you've never heard the singing of John Jacob Niles, you must prepare yourself. His high-pitched voice and strangulated delivery are not for the faint of heart. Described as someone who "seems to have lived down through the centuries," Niles may come across to a modern listener as bizarre, annoying and even sacrilegious. This latter adjective is used because Niles put so much emotion, so much egregious emphasis and unnecessary drama, into these old ballads, that his singing runs counter to the modern, generally accepted method of presenting folk music.

For at least 60 years the method, promulgated by the intellectual and gifted performers of the folk revival, requires an almost grim delivery, devoid of feeling. In that way, a song will tell its own story. Listening to original ballad sources such as Jean Ritchie or Dellie Norton confirms this theory. The lack of drama, combined with a serious intent to communicate and that ineffable something known as "folk memory" is what makes the story come alive. Niles, by contrast, was compelled to wring the story dry of all feeling, leaving the listener -- this listener, at least -- exhausted and disenchanted.

Niles was born in 1892 and died in 1980, in Kentucky, where he is a revered figure. The University of Kentucky has a program in American music that bears his name. As well as singing, Niles was a famed collector (most of the songs he recorded were authentically collected in Kentucky when he was a cash register salesman up in the hills). He also pieced songs together, embellished old songs and wrote new ones (all standard practices among music/lyric composers). He wrote both "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Black is the Color" -- both beloved American folk songs. It is very likely that the people who lionized Niles -- Eleanor Roosevelt and Gertrude Stein, for example -- were charmed by his tolerant and genuinely interested manner of approach to everything he did, and by his reputed genius as a raconteur. One suspects his suave urbanity gained him entry to the halls of the great, where a true ballad source singer such as the hill people he collected from would have been left standing at the back door.

Many greats of American folk music used the Niles version of songs they chose to sing, such as Joan Baez's production of "Little Mattie Groves." This ballad is one of the selections on the CD, and it typifies Niles's dreadful over-dramatization of the story. He used a quavering falsetto for Lord Arlen's wife and a growl for Lord Arlen. His voice drops to a whisper at some points and swells to something akin to a screech at others, all accompanied by dramatic flourishes on a stringed instrument. It is painful to listen to, especially when compared to Baez's version. I had the honor of seeing Baez in concert in 1961, and her rendition of "Little Mattie Groves" brought down the house. Never once did she vary from her solemn sensitive delivery. But Niles served his purpose, in offering her and other artists such as Bob Dylan a lyrical framework for numbers they would go on to make famous.

I would recommend this collection to people who are new to the ballads and would like to get some excellent material, both tunes and lyrics, to work with (e.g. "Barbry Ellen," "The Death of Queen Jane," "Mary Hamilton," "The Lady & the Gypsy," "The Cherry Tree" and "The Murdered Brother," among the 24 selections on the two-disc project). But for listening for its own sake, I was unable to enjoy Niles' delivery. Niles has many fans and I'm sure his reputation will not suffer greatly from my disapprobation, so I will simply say, "caveat emptor."

review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

29 September 2007

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