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I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles.

Ron Pen. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010, xv + 371 pp. Illus. Music. Index. ISBN 978-0-8131-2597-8.

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but at the age of ten his family moved to a farm, and it has been suggested that this mix of urban and rural in his background explains his success in melding an interest in sophisticated art music with a genuine feel for rural folk music. Others, however, argue that it is precisely his failure to straddle these two worlds successfully that caused the contradictions that characterized his life and career.

Niles had started noting folk songs and music from family and neighbours as early as 1906 and at different periods went out of his way to gather more material. One of his key achievements was Singing Soldiers, a collection of songs sung by African-American soldiers in the First World War, and he also published other collections of songs. But, like many another performer, one of the main reasons for collecting material was to use it in his professional career. In the mid-twentieth century he became a well-known figure in American music and his concert tours, records, and radio performances before and after the Second World War made him an extremely influential figure in the folk revival. Many of the stars of the post-war revival cited him as an important influence in their early development. For the music industry he was the genuine article; the 'Dean of American Balladeers' was one of his nicknames.

The first contradiction shows in his editorial practice. In his early publications he occasionally included his own compositions as genuine traditional songs, or wrote new tunes where the old one did not satisfy him, and his texts often do not ring true. This went beyond the needs of writing a book for a popular market and smacked of editorial dishonesty. Ironically, Niles spent much of his later career trying to win recognition--and royalties--for his own compositions which other performers had presumed were in the public domain.

The next problem was that in performance he was the very antithesis of a real traditional singer. He had a carefully managed stage persona, a special costume, and he performed in art music surroundings; his style was mannered, contrived, consciously dramatic; and he played a weird 'dulcimore' of his own design which looked like the bastard offspring of a lute and a cello. Everything about his performance was studied and false, and nothing like those of his - or anyone else's--informants.

While this satisfied the music industry and the general public, many people in the folk world sensed these contradictions, and they still mar his reputation. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be a down-home boy and a cultured art musician; if you present yourself as a simple wandering minstrel, people may not take your art music seriously, and vice versa. You certainly cannot be a respected ballad editor if you feel free to add, change, invent, and pass off things for what they are not.

As Director of the John Jacob Niles Center, Ron Pen might be thought to be a little too close to his subject to offer a fair assessment, but this is clearly not the case. He has presented us with a very readable, balanced account, which does not shirk the anomalies in Niles's life and career but goes a long way to explaining how and why they came about. Pen is also the editor of the latest edition of The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles (University Press of Kentucky, 2000), another aspect of Niles s work with a dubious reputation.

This biography goes a long way to help us understand what made John Jacob Niles tick, but Ron Pen could do more--for Niles as well as the rest of us. We need him to publish Niles s field collection in its raw state, if enough survives to make such a project viable. Niles's reputation as an editor may or may not be salvaged by a close comparison between his surviving notebooks and his published works. His performances, which can still be heard on record and seen on the internet, are a matter of taste. But it may be that Niles's lasting legacy in the folk song field is not as a performer or editor, but as a collector.

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STEVE ROUD Maresfield, Sussex
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Author:Roud, Steve
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 20, 2011
Words:726
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