Friday, February 05, 2021

FRIDAY MUSIC: John Jacob Niles, by JD

 This week it is John Jacob Niles who was a major influence on all of the well known names in the 50s and 60s folk music 'scene' in the USA. You will either love his style or hate it, there is no in between!

John Jacob Niles (April 28, 1892—March 1, 1980) was an American composer, singer, and collector of traditional ballads. Called the "Dean of American Balladeers", Niles was an important influence on the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, with Joan Baez, Burl Ives, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, recording his songs.

In the 1920s, Niles began publishing music. He made four extended trips into the southern Appalachians as an assistant to photographer Doris Ulmann, again transcribing traditional songs from oral sources, including the ballads "Pretty Polly", "Barbara Allen", and "He's Goin' Away". On other occasions, he transcribed songs he heard sung by African Americans and by fellow soldiers in World War I.

Starting in 1938, he recorded a number of his compositions and transcribed songs, performing the material in an intense, dramatic manner. He employed a trademark very high falsetto to portray female characters, and often accompanied himself on an Appalachian dulcimer, lute, or other plucked stringed instrument.

Niles died in Lexington, Kentucky on March 1, 1980 at age 87. He is buried at the nearby St. Hubert's Episcopal Church. The John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky is named after him, and displays a number of traditional instruments he handcrafted.

The above clip is taken from Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home about Bob Dylan. As far as I know it is the only film of Niles performing. In the 70s the BeeGees sang falsetto in their 'disco' period and earlier The Stylistics and Aaron Neville had made falsetto their signature style of singing. But Niles had the advantage of having been an opera singer with, one presumes, the correct training of the voice and so his unique sound is much purer than other untrained singers. The style may take some getting used to because it is so distinctive but it is also electrifying or as Niles himself described it as the "electrifying effect of the male C# alto.

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