John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), the Dean of American Balladeers, was an American singer and composer who influenced many artists with his repetoire of Appalachian songs. He often sang in a high falsetto, which gave his music an eerie, haunting, and dramatic quality. Much of the time he accompanied himself with his distinctive Appalachian dulcimer. A trained musciologist, Niles found his inspiration in the ordinary American. He painstakingly transcribed songs and snippets he heard while traveling throughout his native Appalachia, sometimes refining them and adding to them. His work covered normal human themes, songs of love and despair, gambling songs and spirituals, presented with an understanding and love of those he sang about.
One of his best-known songs, Go Away from My Window, was reportedly written when he was sixteen for a girl he was in love with. Bob Dylan used the first line of the song in his own It Ain 't Me, Babe:
There are very few live recordings available, hut here's a snippet of John Jacob Niles doing that song live, followed by a brief comment by Bob Dylan:
Here's Little Black Star:
And The Irish Girl:
A song with another traditional theme is The Maid Freed from the Gallows. The person who posted this song added a very odd video, so it might best to listen with your eyes closed:
My own favorite is the powerful Christmas song I Wonder As I Wander. The simplicity of the lyrics, combining both a love of nature and awe of the story of Christ, has touched millions of people. It started with a snippet that he heard sung by a young girl. Here's the story behing the song:
And, here's the song itself. I could not find a decent link to it being sung by Niles, so I had to choose among versions done by Joan Baez, Placido Domingo, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. This recording byThe King's Singers brings out the beauty and the power of this carol:
And finally, for those who wish all the details, here's a brief article on Niles, which gives a complete discography and bibliography:
For more forgotten music, visit Scott Parker's blog at scottdparker.blogspot.com, where he provides links for your listening pleasure.