John Jacob Niles,
An Evening with John Jacob Niles
(Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

Here, from his book Chronicles, is Bob Dylan talking about hearing John Jacob Niles for the first time:

A Mephistophelean character out of North Carolina, he hammered away at some harplike instrument and sang in 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.

Dylan's analysis is dead on target. Niles' is the voice you hear in the graveyard at night, the voice you hear in your dreams. To put it simply, it is like none you have heard before.

Although he made records and performed in concerts, Niles was primarily a scholar, a finder of folk songs. From the time he was 18, he made collecting trips into the Appalachians, assembling the largest private archive of folk music in the world, and he published more books of songs than most people have room on their shelves for. He was so convinced that folk songs had to originate in the oral tradition that when he wrote one, such as "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," he would pass it off as a traditional song, a practice he stopped only when other artists, taking advantage of the provisions of the copyright laws, began claiming authorship of his songs.

Does all of this mean that this record belongs in your collection? That depends. Niles wanted to preserve songs, not interpret them. His versions are as close to the originals as he can get, which means that as haunting as his voice is, the performances themselves are sterile and hermetic. It's more music to learn from than music to love.

An Evening With John Jacob Niles belongs in every college and university library, as well as public libraries and folklore centers. Any place where people gather to learn about America's music and rural culture should make this record available. For the casual listener, however, it's not a must buy.

by Michael Scott Cain
18 November 2006

Buy it from