Kentucky Roads, Take Us Home

by Patty-Lynne Herlevi

John Jacob Niles

An Evening with
(Tradition/Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

Although I have never heard of the Kentucky native folk singer and song
collector John Jacob Niles, his colleague, Nelson Stevens hailed the singer “a
genius” in 1957. Author Henry Miller had this to say about John Jacob Niles in
Plexus, a fictionalized account of Miller’s early life.

Over coffee and liqueurs we would sometimes listen to John Jacob Niles’
recordings. Our favorite was ‘I Wonder As I Wander,’ sung in a clear,
high-pitched voice with a quaver and a modality all his own. The metallic clang
of his dulcimer never failed to produce ecstasy. He had a voice which summoned
memories of Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere
.” (quote found on the John Jacob Niles web
site produced by Scott Whitman,

Niles voice is described as other-worldly by Barry Alfonso in the liner notes

I Wonder as I Wander
, (Tradition/Empire Musicwerks). “Hearing Niles for the
first time was a little jarring. Out of my stereo came his startling,
other-worldly voice, the sound of someone enraptured–or maybe possessed. He
seemed to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it

All of these statements ring true. When I first listened to

An Evening with John Jacob Niles
, I too did not know what to make of his voice. I thought it was
worth a trip to the Internet where I could find more biographical information
about the musician. The liner notes that come with this recording include a
brief biography. Niles was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1892, (died in 1980),
and although he grew up on a farm, he was granted a musical education beginning
with piano. He studied music in the United States and abroad in Paris and he
collected American folk songs. He performed both classical and folk music.

This reissue of a 1957 recording also includes Niles commentary on his original
songs, although there is one traditional ballad included, Lulle Lullay. He sings
in a falsetto voice over plucked instruments, mainly a dulcimer. He sings in the
falsetto voice mainly when he is imitating the women characters in his songs,
which come across as literary vignettes. No wonder writer Henry Miller enjoyed
Niles songs. But he wasn’t alone, the late folk singer inspired many artists
including, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marlene Dietrich, Burl Ives and Peter, Paul and

Niles tended to write songs of a religious nature, and on this CD there are a
few examples, When I Gets Up Into Heaven, The Seven Joys of Mary, Sing We The
Virgin Mary, You Got to Cross That Lonesome Valley and The Carol of The Birds
inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. One secular song stands out, I’m In The
Notion Now because it features a conversation between a daughter who is
predicting her wedding and her mother. The title refers to the daughter’s state
of mind. It’s a catchy lilting tune that promises to highjack your brain until
you hum it under your breath all day long.

In fact, this entire recording promises to get under your skin. John Jacob Niles
possesses an unforgettable voice that does hover above this world, certainly
ethereal and distinct. I doubt you’ll find anyone quite like Niles. And perhaps
you will even find yourself enraptured like the late Henry Miller upon hearing
these old tunes.

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central