Folksinger John Jacob Niles, salvaged | Bleader

Folksinger John Jacob Niles, salvaged



John Jacob Niles: The Boone-Tolliver Recordings
  • John Jacob Niles: The Boone-Tolliver Recordings
I bought an old LP by American folksinger and song collector John Jacob Niles in the late 80s, when I worked in record stores. I picked up Folk Balladeer largely because the cover attracted me—it featured a black-and-white photo of square-jawed, professorial Niles holding a strange-looking lute upright, beside his face. I'd never heard of him before, and when I listened to the album I was startled by his peculiar singing, which seemed to collide folksy coarseness with academic formality. In the liner notes to that record, Robert Angus writes of Niles, "He freely admits that he cultivated the upper end of his singing register because of the effect it had on audiences. 'I soon discovered the electric effect of a male alto C-sharp, and this led to compose a melodic line involving the highest notes in my range.'" What that means—and what you can hear in the songs below—is that Niles veered into a crazy falsetto that's utterly disorienting. To me it tends to sound either borderline insane or throat-grabbingly passionate.

I was startled anew when I put on a terrific new reissue of Niles recordings called The Boone-Tolliver Recordings, released by L-M Dupli-cation, the label run by Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of A Hawk and a Hacksaw. My ears are still adjusting to Niles's voice.

Niles was singing Appalachian folk songs on the road and in the studio decades before the late-50s folk revival, which gathered up regional artists, both black and white, and introduced them to the country at large (and in some cases the world). Niles hailed from Kentucky, but unlike other folk musicians from the state—Buell Kazee, Dick Burnett, Roscoe Holcomb—he studied at the Schola Cantorum and the Lyons Conservatory in France (both following a stint in the army) and composed an oratorio and a cantata.

His full-time musical career began in the 30s. In 1938 he performed at the White House, and the following year he began making records for RCA, usually interpreting tunes from the ballad collection of folklorist Dr. Francis J. Child or other love songs he heard and adapted during his travels. A conversation with Niles from 1957 appears in the opening chapter of And They All Sang: Adventures of An Eclectic Disc Jockey (New Press)—a collection of transcribed radio interviews conducted by Studs Terkel—and his eccentricity and erudition practically leap off the page. Discussing an earlier version of "The Little Mohee," which is on the new reissue, he says, "And I tell you, sir, it is something to behold. Not for juveniles. It's the same tune as 'On Top of Old Smoky.' The tune is an American invention. Our tunes are all our own. American, not English. The 'Mohee' is the variation of a Scottish story. It's a universal theme. Denmark, Norway, Finland, all the way into the Baltic states, into Hungary, Turkey, and finally into India. But the tunes are ours! Don't be deceived."

The tracks on The Boone-Tolliver Recordings were cut in 1952, when Niles decided to take matters into his own hands. He recorded the songs at his home in rural Boot Hill Farm, Kentucky, for release on his new Boone-Tolliver imprint. Poor distribution sank the enterprise after it released a pair of ten-inch records—which are both incredibly rare. He accompanies himself on one of the dulcimers he built, which he strummed like a guitar rather than striking with hammers or picks. According to the notes to Folk Balladeer, he constructed "more than 30 dulcimers during his life. Of these, only five were playable." The Boone-Tolliver Recordings features many familiar songs, including "The Cuckoo," "Barbary Ellen," and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," but it's a safe bet you've never heard them sung like this before. Below you can listen to "The Lass From the Low Country (Oh Sorrow)" and watch a video put together by L-M Dupli-cation using the audio of "I'm Goin' Away" and vintage footage from a Niles documentary.

John Jacob Niles, "The Lass From the Low Country (Oh Sorrow)"

Today's playlist:

The Wailers, Burnin' (Tuff Gong/Island)
Bebo Valdés, Bebo de Cuba (Calle 54)
Charlie Rich, It Ain't Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions (Ace)
Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Virgin/Astralwerks)
Jason Kahn, Timelines Los Angeles (Creative Sources)