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I Wonder as I Wander

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

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    I Wonder as I Wander
    Book Description:

    Louisville native John Jacob Niles (1892--1980) is considered to be one of our nation's most influential musicians. As a composer and balladeer, Niles drew inspiration from the deep well of traditional Appalachian and African American folk songs. At the age of sixteen Niles wrote one of his most enduring tunes, "Go 'Way from My Window," basing it on a song fragment from a black farm worker. This iconic song has been performed by folk artists ever since and may even have inspired the opening line of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe."

    In I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, the first full-length biography of Niles, Ron Pen offers a rich portrait of the musician's character and career. Using Niles's own accounts from his journals, notebooks, and unpublished autobiography, Pen tracks his rise from farm boy to songwriter and folk collector extraordinaire. Niles was especially interested in documenting the voices of his fellow World War I soldiers, the people of Appalachia, and the spirituals of African Americans. In the 1920s he collaborated with noted photographer Doris Ulmann during trips to Appalachia, where he transcribed, adapted, and arranged traditional songs and ballads such as "Pretty Polly" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair."

    Niles's preservation and presentation of American folk songs earned him the title of "Dean of American Balladeers," and his theatrical use of the dulcimer is credited with contributing to the popularity of that instrument today. Niles's dedication to the folk music tradition lives on in generations of folk revival artists such as Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, and Oscar Brand. I Wonder as I Wander explores the origins and influences of the American folk music resurgence of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally tells the story of a man at the forefront of that movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2598-5
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Rick Kogan

    It was nearly twenty-five years ago, or possibly longer, that my childhood friend Ron Pen took me for a walk that carried me at once into another man’s life and into what would become Pen’s long-standing and determined and frustrating and now realized passion to put the life and times of John Jacob Niles between the covers of a book, this remarkable book. That day is so colorfully and lovingly and powerfully evoked in the first pages of this book—the gauzy sun, the carvings of “sacred icons and scriptures … intertwined with images of the native tobacco leaves and...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-1)
  5. Overture: Sunrise in Clark County
    (pp. 3-8)

    The sun creeps over the mist-shrouded hills of Kentucky’s rolling bluegrass and ignites the amber and scarlet leaves clinging to the autumnal trees. From my upstairs porch, you can just make out the silhouette of the first wave of mountains beyond the snaky green Kentucky River. Looking out over the rugged fieldstone walls hugging Grimes Mill Road, it is less than a mile to John Jacob Niles’s Boot Hill Farm, cradled in a bend of Boone Creek. The same creek that was home to frontiersman Daniel Boone in 1773 was Niles’s home from 1939 until his death in 1980.


  6. 1 The Families Gather at the River
    (pp. 9-24)

    The drama unfolds in the former city of Portland, Kentucky, in the early years of the nineteenth century.¹ Portland was strategically located right below three miles of rocky shoals known as the Falls of the Ohio and just to the west of the neighboring city of Louisville.² During summer months, when the Ohio River was at low stage, boats going upstream from ports along the Mississippi and the Ohio were compelled to disembark at Portland’s Commercial Street (now Thirty-fourth Street) wharf and move overland around the falls to Louisville. Likewise, boats headed downstream from Louisville had to transfer their goods...

  7. 2 The Move to Rural Jefferson County
    (pp. 25-40)

    On September 22, 1902, Niles’s father moved the family away from Louisville to Inverness Farm in rural Jefferson County. There are various possible reasons for this change in lifestyle. It might have been an attempt by Tommie Niles to improve his financial affairs. John Jacob Niles indicated that his father had “a huge load of debts” at this time.¹ Or perhaps it was an attempt to escape the cholera epidemics. Probably it was the best way to provide a larger space for the rapidly expanding family. This must have been a challenging move, away from the close-knit Reisch family, away...

  8. 3 Independence and Adventure
    (pp. 41-52)

    With his diploma in hand, Niles immediately started work with the county survey crew, cutting brush, dragging chains, and driving stakes. The hard labor was not much more challenging than work on the family farm, but unlike farm work, it provided an income—most of which went to his family to help pay off his father’s debts. By the end of the summer, Niles had worked his way into more of a desk job.¹ Once in the main office, Niles went to work in the calculating department, where he soon put his practical skills to work repairing Brunsviga adding machines.²...

  9. 4 Jack Niles Goes Off to War
    (pp. 53-64)

    Niles’s diary reveals the narrowly circumscribed world of family, music, and work in which he dwelt. Events in the outside world, however, underscored his daily activity like an ominous pedal point. Given the complexity of his family’s strong German lineage, his father’s vocal politics, and his own vulnerable draft status, Niles found it increasingly difficult to balance daily life with the impending world events.

    The Russian czar Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, 1917, and the U.S. Congress ratifi ed President Wilson’s Declaration of War on April 6. One month later John Jacob Niles found himself a cadet in the...

  10. 5 Life after the War
    (pp. 65-74)

    Landing at Hoboken Harbor on August 20, 1919, Niles began the gradual and uncomfortable transition back to civilian life. He was formally demobilized from the U.S. Army, with a clearance of money and property accountability, at Camp Sheridan, Ohio.¹ Free of obligations and entanglements, and with nothing but uncertainty ahead, he returned to his parents’ home in Louisville. Although there is no record of it, there must have been an uneasy reunion with his wife Roberta that served only to remind him of how he had been transformed by the war. He chose to move in with his parents rather...

  11. 6 Creating a Life in the Big Apple
    (pp. 75-110)

    In fall 1922, after the final opera performance in Cincinnati, Niles packed up his few possessions and traveled to Wilton, a small, quiet town in the Norwalk River Valley, just fifty miles away from the throbbing heart of Manhattan. There was little about this placid bedroom community to retain Niles’s interest, however, so after a few months, he moved to the city itself and settled into a dingy basement apartment located on Washington Place, just off Washington Square in the center of Greenwich Village.

    The next day, Niles hit the pavement, attempting to parlay letters of introduction provided by a...

  12. 7 Kerby and Niles Present Folk Music on the Concert Stage
    (pp. 111-134)

    Even whileSeven Kentucky Mountain SongsandSeven Negro Exaltationswere still on the drawing board, the songs from the collection were already being given a trial run in rehearsals for Niles’s new performance initiative, the duo of Marion Kerby, contralto, and John Jacob Niles, tenor.

    Marion Kerby (1877–1956) was already a veteran actress by the time she met Niles in December 1928 at the Princeton Club of New York. She inaugurated her stage career at the turn of the century, and by 1922 she had made her reputation in the role of Nana, the “mean sister,” in the...

  13. 8 Doris Ulmann
    (pp. 135-182)

    A portrait of Ulmann emerges through the lens of her contemporaries’ recollections and from the few photographic images she permitted. Slim, elegant, frail, and pale, she had short dark hair, partially concealed under an array of fashionable hats, and was attired in billowy dotted Swiss summer dresses or scarlet silk. She was uncertain and unsure of herself, humble, and yet fiercely determined—absolutely driven by the purpose of her art. Her hands must have been scarred by her work, by soaking in harsh photographic chemicals, and her fingertips stained umber by the cigarettes. Her intense eyes, later set inside dark...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 9 Transitions and New Beginnings
    (pp. 183-196)

    During Ulmann’s final weeks, several wills were written and discarded, leading to a final will and testament that was dictated to her lawyer, Charles Furnald Smith, on August 21, 1934. This document generously endowed the John C. Campbell Folk School, provided a substantial gift to Berea College for a photography exhibition hall, bestowed an annual stipend on Niles, left the prints and photographic plates in care of Niles, and dispersed smaller gifts to family members and servants. Since this document radically altered the provisions of Ulmann’s previous will, of 1927, in which she left most of her estate to her...

  16. 10 Life in Lexington
    (pp. 197-216)

    The Nileses’ trip to Kentucky took them first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then to Pittsburgh, where they spent Easter with their close friends the Eliots. On Monday, March 29, 1937, they arrived at Wilmington, Ohio, and then spent Tuesday with their friends Ernest and Leona Haswell in Cincinnati. When they arrived at Lexington on Wednesday, they checked into the Phoenix Hotel and had dinner with President McVey and his wife. The next day they located an apartment to rent, the second floor of a house at 231 McDowell in the Chevy Chase neighborhood. With a place to call their own...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. 11 Settled in Kentucky
    (pp. 217-228)

    While the world war cast its sullen shadow over Europe, the great golden Indian Summer had taken up residence in the heart of Kentucky’s bluegrass. With the core of the house construction at Boot Hill Farm complete, Rena and John Jacob settled into the serene routine of a domestic life, interrupted only by the customary fall and spring concert tours.¹

    As though in celebration of this new period of domesticity, Rena gave birth to their firstborn son, Thomas Michael Tolliver Niles, at about two o’clock in the afternoon of September 22, 1939. Rena recalled that “the arrival of Tom was...

  19. 12 Dean of American Balladeers
    (pp. 229-244)

    Life was simultaneously very ordinary yet also very extraordinary for the Niles family. Domestic life was rather ordinary as Rena and John Jacob were occupied with raising a “baby boomer” family during the prosperous postwar Truman-Eisenhower years. But Niles’s flourishing career created an extraordinary lifestyle: the household had to adjust to his frequent absences from home and accommodate his creative lifestyle when he was present. Rena’s diary entry of March 27, 1939, communicates the welter of excitement and activity that was typical of daily Boot Hill life.

    The foal is a filly … and the mare was as mean as...

  20. 13 Consolidation of a Life in Music
    (pp. 245-258)

    By the mid-1950s the white-haired Niles, at the retirement age of sixty-five, was characterized as the “dean of American balladeers.” His collecting days were long past, his concert schedule had slowed somewhat, and he was regarded by a younger audience as something of a curiosity with his high voice and dramatic articulation. At this point Niles began to consolidate his life’s work in recordings with Tradition, Disc/Folkways, and Boone Tolliver and in publication ofThe Ballad Book of John Jacob NilesandThe Songs of John Jacob Niles.

    Although RCA declined to make any new recordings, the firm did elect...

  21. 14 Do Not Go Gentle
    (pp. 259-278)

    A white-haired, stern-faced old man, stooped slightly forward at the waist, wearing black tails and a white tie, walked slowly from the wings. He stopped at the center of the stage, where there were three card tables, a dulcimer lying on each. According to an account in theCincinnati Enquirer,

    Slowly, he sat down at one of the tables, reached out and his lean brown fingers began to move lightly across the strings of the dulcimer.

    “Do not be surprised at my high voice,” he said. “It has always been a high voice. And may God let it remain a...

  22. Coda
    (pp. 279-284)

    But the story does not really end. It continues with a birthday party. At just past six thirty on Friday evening, April 28, 2006, exactly 116 years after John Jacob Niles was born, guests begin to arrive at the lovely Lexington home of Jackie and Helm Roberts. Pianist Nancie Field, still keen and spry, is already seated on the sofa chatting with Hannah Shepherd, close confidante of Rena Niles, in the commodious living room that was designed by Helm as a concert space inspired by the Boot Hill Farm “stage.”¹ Actress Janet Scott is engaged in animated discussion with Jackie...

  23. Notes
    (pp. 285-326)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-340)
  25. Sound Recordings of John Jacob Niles’s Music
    (pp. 341-354)
  26. Index
    (pp. 355-376)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 377-377)