John Jacob Niles,
I Wonder as I Wander:
Carols & Love Songs

(1957, Empire, 2006)

I Wonder as I Wander is a magical album of songs originally released by John Jacob Niles in 1957, but now remastered and available for a new generation. Even the album title sounds beautiful.

Niles opens with a pair of carols performed without accompaniment. "Waken Little Shepherd" he composed to amuse his son while "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head" comes from Kentucky many decades ago.

Niles has a knack for taking any song -- familiar or new -- and making it over to suit himself. In many ways, I suppose that most folk singers before the era of recorded sound did the same, but we can never know. A case in point is "Frog Went a Courtin" as you will not have heard before. "The Irish Girl" is a song learned from his father and, considering that Niles was born in 1892, we can imagine his father having music reaching back even further.

A revelation on this album for me is that Niles wrote a song called "Go Away from My Window" when he was just 16 years old. With his unique style of singing it is hard to decide if the more popular song of that name is derived from it. A more familiar track on offer here is "Look Down that Lonesome Road." Hearing Niles perform it with his distinctive voice and delivery makes it sound even more sad and forlorn. The title track is a wonderful gospel song.

Another song we are used to hearing is "Black is the Colour." Niles sings it to a very different air and he dates it from around 1920. He also offers us renditions of "John Henry" and "I Had a Cat," among others.

The singing of John Jacob Niles will not appeal to everyone. I doubt if there are many tracks on here that will get airplay, but this is a seminal release. Here we can experience songs being sung not only as he sang them through the first half of the 20th century, but also he recalls his father's renditions in the late 19th century. In addition, the songs preserved here could form a basic repertoire to any aspiring folk artist who would perform in imitation of Niles or maybe take a leaf from his book and adapt classic sounds to suit a 21st-century audience.

by Nicky Rossiter
22 April 2006

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