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John Jacob Niles authenticity?

DigiTrad:
BLACK IS THE COLOR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S HAIR (1)
BONNY FARDAY
DOWN IN YON FORREST
I LEARNED ABOUT HORSES FROM HER
LASS FROM THE LOW COUNTRY
THE SMART SCHOOLBOY
VENEZUELA (PASS AWAY TIME IN)


Related threads:
Origins of Lass From the Low Country (9)
Lyr Req: Go 'Way from My Window (22)
Tune Req: Queen Eleanor's Confession (Child #156) (39)
Lyr Req: Down in Yon Forest (from John Jacob Niles (60)
Lyr Req: Black Oak Tree (John Jacob Niles) (21)
John J Niles - Boone Tolliver LPs on CD (4)
(origins) Origin: Venezuela (John Jacob Niles) (17)
John Jacob Niles on WFDU-FM (17)
(origins) Origin: Hi Ho the Preacher Man (John Jacob Niles?) (2)
Lyr Req/Add: He Hey! Why Do We Pay? (J J Niles) (7)
J.J. Niles. Any personal reminiscences? (33)
Lyr Req: I Wonder as I Wander (John Jacob Niles) (24)
John Jacob Niles recordings (4)
Lyr Req: Go Way From My Window (7)
Lyr/Chords Req: So We'll Go No More A-Roving (19)
Lyr Req: I Wonder As I Wander (13)
Proselytizing (55)
Lyr/Tune Add: The Deceived Girl -Child9 (1)
Lyr Add: The Smart Schoolboy (Child #3) (1)
Lyr Req: Venezuela (John Jacob Niles) (6)


Lesley N. 13 Aug 99 - 09:12 AM
Sandy Paton 13 Aug 99 - 11:04 AM
Lesley N. 13 Aug 99 - 11:52 AM
Rick Fielding 13 Aug 99 - 01:02 PM
Sandy Paton 13 Aug 99 - 01:50 PM
Lesley N. 13 Aug 99 - 02:39 PM
Rick Fielding 13 Aug 99 - 04:14 PM
Legal Eagle 13 Aug 99 - 05:45 PM
Sandy Paton 13 Aug 99 - 06:18 PM
Bill D 13 Aug 99 - 11:46 PM
Dick Wisan 20 Aug 99 - 11:16 PM
Sandy Paton 20 Aug 99 - 11:39 PM
catspaw49 20 Aug 99 - 11:55 PM
John Hindsill 21 Aug 99 - 12:31 AM
Sandy Paton 21 Aug 99 - 12:45 AM
catspaw49 21 Aug 99 - 01:06 AM
Mungo 22 Aug 99 - 12:36 AM
Rick Fielding 22 Aug 99 - 01:06 AM
catspaw49 22 Aug 99 - 02:48 AM
Frank Hamilton 22 Aug 99 - 06:32 PM
KathWestra 23 Aug 99 - 05:03 PM
Art Thieme 31 Aug 99 - 11:30 PM
catspaw49 31 Aug 99 - 11:35 PM
Robert Field kddlc@tin.it. 01 Sep 99 - 03:55 AM
Graham Pirt 01 Sep 99 - 07:52 AM
Susanne (skw) 20 Sep 99 - 06:48 PM
GUEST,Scott Whitman (webmaster@JohnJacobNiles.com) 30 Jul 02 - 10:46 PM
Venthony 31 Jul 02 - 12:12 AM
EBarnacle1 05 Aug 02 - 04:47 PM
Deckman 06 Aug 02 - 05:15 PM
Kaleea 07 Aug 02 - 03:46 AM
GUEST,Tossi Aaron 09 Nov 02 - 04:08 PM
Charley Noble 09 Nov 02 - 04:59 PM
kytrad (Jean Ritchie) 09 Nov 02 - 06:05 PM
Ed. 09 Nov 02 - 08:11 PM
Cubs 09 Nov 02 - 10:17 PM
John Minear 10 Nov 02 - 05:24 PM
GUEST 10 Nov 02 - 05:46 PM
Kim C 11 Nov 02 - 11:30 AM
GUEST,lighter 14 Apr 03 - 03:39 PM
Stephen R. 28 Dec 03 - 11:18 PM
GUEST,Frank 29 Dec 03 - 05:20 PM
McGrath of Harlow 29 Dec 03 - 05:35 PM
GUEST 29 Dec 03 - 11:47 PM
Niles Center 24 Jan 04 - 03:17 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 24 Jan 04 - 03:35 PM
Uncle_DaveO 24 Jan 04 - 04:42 PM
Lighter 24 Jan 04 - 06:10 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 24 Jan 04 - 06:33 PM
GUEST,Niles Center 27 Jan 04 - 04:05 PM
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Subject: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Lesley N.
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 09:12 AM

I just read on the Ballad Index that John Jacob Niles retouched several of the ballads he collected and therefore isn't considered to be a reliable source. Does anyone have any information on this or point me to a place I can read more?


Songs of John Jacob Niles

Little Drowned Girl (Two Sisters)


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 11:04 AM

It is quite widely accepted in the academic community that Niles' material is unreliable. A number of songs, including some very lovely ones, that he claimed to have "collected" are known to have been written by him. Some he claims to have found in fragmentary form ("I Wonder as I Wander" for example), others he wrote from scratch ("Venezuela"). None of the scholars with whom I exchange information take his Ballad Book seriously.

Another example would be the Judas ballad. It has not been reported from tradition anywhere in the English-speaking world for centuries, and many believe that Child simply included it in order to establish that the ballad form existed at the time it was written down. Niles, on the other hand, alone among our collectors, claims to have found several versions. Let's say that possibility is "extremely unlikely," to put it mildly. I would also be suspicious of the "Fair Flower of Northumberland" that you recently contributed here. Better to check Bertrand Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads for authentic source material. If he includes it, you can believe it.

This is NOT to suggest that Niles' versions should not be sung at all. Many are very beautiful songs and deserve to have lives of their own. It's just that they can't be used by serious folklorists in researching the occurrence of a particular ballad in oral tradition.

Sandy (who still may sing "I Wonder as I Wander" in season)


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Lesley N.
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 11:52 AM

Thanks Sandy - What a disappointment! No wonder he has so many that aren't found elsewhere. Clearly I must put a disclaimer on any Niles ballads I put up. Do you know of any critque of Niles in print - a magazine article or something?

I'm on the look out for Bronson (the local university and town libraries not having him) and figure I will have to mortgage the house and sell the kids if I ever find a copy.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 01:02 PM

Back when I was a naieve lad of fifteen I bought a record of "the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles" and listened to it endlessly. My mother thought I had gone totally insane! She'd sort of gotten used to Woody, Huddie, and Flatt and Scruggs, and even though she thought the early Bob Dylan had been gargling with brick dust, tried to be respectful of my musical tastes. "That man sounds like he's being hanged"! (Later I found out that in concert, he did indeed hang himself while singing "Maid Free'd From The Gallows"....sort of an early Alice Cooper)
The thing that struck me was that Mr. Niles said he'd collected all these songs from mountain folk. Well if he did, they all had HUGE vocal ranges and did more decorating than a Macy's employee at Christmas.
I still listen to him, and weirdness and all, think he's a hoot. I have an album where he's talking to one of the Clancy Brothers about his ability to lie on a bed and spit onto the ceiling! In his photos he always has great boots.

Rick


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 01:50 PM

I'll look around for an academic expose, Lesley, but not till next week. I have to get ready for tomorrows's Connecticut Family Folk Festival in Hartford's Elizabeth Park. Hold the rain, please!

Not being particularly prone to kindness, Richard Chase always used to refer to Mr. Niles as "John Jacob Jingle-monger." Such an unkind cut!

Sandy


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Lesley N.
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 02:39 PM

Thanks Sandy - no hurry at all.

You and Rick offer much more interesting information than the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music (http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/NilesCenter/). How could they have left out that he could spit to the ceiling? (But if what goes up must come down I hope this was before he married...)


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 04:14 PM

After hearing his singing voice, one might wonder HOW he got married!


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Legal Eagle
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 05:45 PM

I am disillusioned!


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 06:18 PM

Why be disillusioned? The man was doubtless a creative genius (and probably could have made the U. S. Olympic team in ceiling-spitting, too!). I'm told that Schirmers wanted "authentic" folk material for the small publication they did of his early collectanea, so he included a few things of his own and called them "traditional," using such fanciful head notes as "collected from an old yarb doctor in West Bucksnort, Tennessee", or words to that effect. Hence, Susan Reed learned "Lass From the Low Countrie," assumed it was traditional (I don't know how it could have fooled her!) and recorded it. I've been told that Niles later attempted to sue for royalties, but failed, since he, himself, had listed the song as traditional. The lawsuit story may be an apocryphal yarn, but, what the hell, so was his description of the background of the song. The man should have taken credit, proudly, for his original stuff and let it go at that. I only wish that a few of our present "omphaloscopists" could write such songs as he!

Sandy


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Bill D
Date: 13 Aug 99 - 11:46 PM

I agree with Rick about the voice...I have this record of JJN...mint condition..played it maybe twice!...NOT my style for rendering songs...(hmmm maybe THAT'S what he did...render 'em!)


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Dick Wisan
Date: 20 Aug 99 - 11:16 PM

>The man should have taken credit, proudly, for his
>original stuff and let it go at that.

I heard "Venezuela" first on a shellac 78 in an album I had some time in the early 40's. Something about the sound of it raised dark suspicions (in those days, I thought every folk singer was pure and authentic). Then, along about 1970, I heard Niles perform live. By that time, he could be more frank. He confirmed my suspicions about "Venezuela". Then he disillusioned me about "Go 'way from my window" which I had never suspected. It was sort of true, he said, that he got it from [...??.. some kind of authentic person] but then he sang what the authentic person actually sang. It sounded more like a field holler than anything else, and the only words were "Go way from my window. Don't bother me no more." The rest Niles added.

The reason for the subterfuge, he said, is that when he was starting out, ALL folk songs had to be old and collected from authentic persons. Nowadays (ca 1970), you can admit you made it up.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 20 Aug 99 - 11:39 PM

Here's a thought, Bill D: Put the JJN record up for auction on the Mudcat! Big Mick will probably pay $100 for it! Then we can make some kind of ceremonial presentation to him at the Getaway. Or maybe Ferrara doesn't feel as negative about the presentation as you do. :-)

"Venezuela" seems to have fooled the publishing world, at the first, but what did they know about folksongs? I heard it sung by Richard Dyer-Bennett, back in the dark ages, and knew enough, even then, to doubt it. "Lass From the Low Countrie" shouldn't have fooled anyone! The tune he created for "Black is the Color" is quite lovely, and "I Wonder as I Wander" is a masterpiece of artificial "folk simplicity, but let's admit it, we've all sung it, happily, at one Christmas season or another. Give the man credit for writing some good'uns, but don't include his ballad versions as examples of authentic tradition in your dissertation!

Sandy


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: catspaw49
Date: 20 Aug 99 - 11:55 PM

This thread came up as I was leaving for Kentucky last week, and Sandy had posted a definitive answer, so I didn't bother to look for it when I came back. But since it came up again, let me add 2 cents....probably less.

As folk music burst around and upon me in the mid sixties, JJN was one of the many who drew me to the music of the mountains. He was, at that point in time, held in some esteem around Berea and we were innocent young sponges who really didn't know anything of what we know now. All the same, there is a certain debt of an odd sort we owe him. Original, certainly; Authentic, certainly not...and yet, much that eventually came out of the Appalachian hills would never have garnered any notice had it not been for his notoriety which gave some reason to search out the truly authentic people, sounds, and songs. He wasn't the sole reason of course, but he certainly provided additional impetus to that movement. And he was one of the "baits" which hooked many of us on folk.

Shoulda' figured it out though......Even his dulcimers were outlandishly sized!

Spaw


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: John Hindsill
Date: 21 Aug 99 - 12:31 AM

Shortly after first reading of this thread I was in a thrift store, came across a JJN album issued in the mid 50s on his own label. Would have left it, but this discussion prompted me to purchase it. I will listen to it more critically than I might have otherwise.---John


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Sandy Paton
Date: 21 Aug 99 - 12:45 AM

Niles was often described by sophisticatd music critics as a counter-tenor, but he chose to refer to himself as a "mountain tenor." If so, then perhaps Roscoe Holcomb, also from Kentucky, representsan authentic example of the tradition that Niles emulated.

After Frank Proffitt (North Carolina) had heard Holcomb sing, I asked him what he thought of Roscoe's style. Frank thought for a quiet moment, as he was wont to do, then replied, "Well, it's real. Of course it ain't the way we sing down here, but it's real. It's good."

Sandy (getting dangerously close to thread creep!)


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: catspaw49
Date: 21 Aug 99 - 01:06 AM

Just left another thread where "Sandy" and "thread creep" was noticed together. I think you're a bit of the "Niles" too.........YOUR post is relevant, but you dangle a bait out there that's nighass near impossible to resist and another of us poor schmucks takes the blame for going off on a tangent...the "impetus" to go further though is yours Mr. Paton!!!

DAMN.....Wouldja' look at this??? I'm taking the bait about not taking the bait.......... gimme'a break here.....................

Spaw


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Mungo
Date: 22 Aug 99 - 12:36 AM

I heard once that JJN out-and-out wrote "Black is the Color"--I never enjoyed his singing. I do include in my repetoire his "Lizzie May"--I like to have a song at hand for any subject--and incest themes are rare. I didn't like the tune in his Ballad Book--so I reworked it and added "In the pines" for a chorus. (I am not what you would call a purist!)

Bob


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 22 Aug 99 - 01:06 AM

Hey Sandy if Mr. Niles was a "Mountain tenor" I'm gonna start callin' myself an "Urban Baritone". If Duckboots decides to get a "rinse job" I'm going to write a brand new folksong called "Black is the Colour of My Love's True Hair"

Rick


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: catspaw49
Date: 22 Aug 99 - 02:48 AM

Naw Rick.....Have her go for that plum shade instead. Or Chartreuse....that'd sound nice. And you could claim you got it from a guy with 3 fingers who's retired from a sawmill around Lake Nippissing who sings soprano because the fingers aren't the only thing he lost at the sawmill.

Spaw


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Frank Hamilton
Date: 22 Aug 99 - 06:32 PM

Those of you who are familiar with the song "Black Is The Color of my True Love' Hair" might be intereated to hear Jean Ritchie's lovely version of the same song sung in a myxolydian tonality rather than the aeolian one that JJN fashioned for copyright purposes. I suspect the song is much older than Niles and would love to hear what Jean has to say about it.

That being said, Niles was a great showman and did much to foster the tradition. He also fashioned his dulcimer out of a cello. Wonder if any cello players had one made out of a dulcimer? :)

Frank Hamilton


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: KathWestra
Date: 23 Aug 99 - 05:03 PM

Dunno about that. But down here in D.C., there was an infamous hurdy-gurdy once fashioned out of a cello. It was a scary weapon. Have Bill D. tell you about it... Kathy


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Art Thieme
Date: 31 Aug 99 - 11:30 PM

JJN's voice always reminded me of a banshee in heat---or the sounds that filled the night when the orphanage burned down.

Art


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: catspaw49
Date: 31 Aug 99 - 11:35 PM

Damn Art, that's pretty graphic!!! Pretty accurate too, but real damn graphic!

Spaw


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Robert Field kddlc@tin.it.
Date: 01 Sep 99 - 03:55 AM

In my opinion, John Jacob Niles' LP "Folk Balladeer", released by RCA Victor, containing F.J.Child ballads, is a masterpiece. He is not scientific as a collector, but is a great artist. I wish that LP was re-published in a CD format. Does anibody know something about that?

Robert Field.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Graham Pirt
Date: 01 Sep 99 - 07:52 AM

It doesn't seem that JJN is much different from Robert Burns, Walter Scott or Stokoe (Northumbrian Minstrelsy. I appreciate that for students of the songs it can make life difficult (but interesting!) but for singers there are some pretty good songs amonst all of them. When I first heard (and learnt) Venezuela back in the mid sixties I thought that it didn't have the ring of authenticity and have always questioned its parentage whenever introducing it. Pleased to hear I was justified!


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Susanne (skw)
Date: 20 Sep 99 - 06:48 PM

'Venezuela' - is that the song starting
'I met her in Venezuela with a basket on her head'?

I've got this on a Rita Connolly CD, where it is listed as Trad. You seem more or less agreed it was really written by Niles and passed off as Trad.

I have wondered about the song. It's got an air of 'faux naiveté' about it - too contrived for a trad. song, I thought. Looks like my instincts were right! Thanks.


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Subject: John Jacob Niles website
From: GUEST,Scott Whitman (webmaster@JohnJacobNiles.com)
Date: 30 Jul 02 - 10:46 PM

To hear and learn more about John Jacob Niles, please visit:

www.JohnJacobNiles.com

Thank you, Scott Whitman webmaster@JohnJacobNiles.com


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Venthony
Date: 31 Jul 02 - 12:12 AM

I grew up in the 60s and early 70s with a Niles songbook on the piano. I learned to play several of the tunes and even liked a few of them.

But for most of those years my varying gods were the Beatles, the Gershwins, Pete Seeger and Doc Watson.

As for Niles, in my rapidly advancing middle age -- the words "egotistical crap" come to mind.

Tony


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: EBarnacle1
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 04:47 PM

While not a particular fan of JJN, I find it interesting that he is being panned for doing what we do ourselves. In the era when he was active, as Sandy says, material had to be trad or it could not be presented. He presented it. I don't think the government allows you to 'unsurrender' a copyright, especially considering the recent fight over the rights to "Wimoweh."


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Deckman
Date: 06 Aug 02 - 05:15 PM

I am very pleased that this thread renewed. Back when I was a kritter, and I was once, I listened to many hours of JJN. I admit that his 'mountain tenor' voice took some gettin' used to, but once I accepted it for what it was, I was fascinated. His recordings, along with a few others, gave me a real education in the art of phrasing. CHEERS, Bob


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Kaleea
Date: 07 Aug 02 - 03:46 AM

Wimoweh & Sandy, you hit the nail on the head. In the days of the "Classical" & "Romantic" Periods (& others, too) it was considered a compliment for a composer to quote another composer in their works. While he definitley was one to slap those copyrights on his arrangements, he brought vast amounts of traditional tunes & songs back into the genre of "Art Music" thus allowing the songs to be brought out of obscurity (or the hills) and into the recital halls of Universities, & Concert Halls. Not a shabby contribution to the world of music. And, yes, if we could, most of us would too!


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST,Tossi Aaron
Date: 09 Nov 02 - 04:08 PM


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Charley Noble
Date: 09 Nov 02 - 04:59 PM

Missed this thread. Thanks for reviving it, Tossi.

I can't listen to "Hangman" without hearing the Smothers Brothers' version echoing in my head:

Urkkkk!

Charley Noble


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: kytrad (Jean Ritchie)
Date: 09 Nov 02 - 06:05 PM

Spaw- greetings! But- being a Berean, you must know that there was some knowledge of Appalachian folksong before the sixties. Nu? Several of us "eventually came out of the Appalachian hills" decades earlier- and even garnered a bit of notice... just teasing. I know you know better.

If any of you live near Lexington, there's a John Jacob Niles Center on the UK campus- very elegant. I won't go into criticism nor praise of JJN here (our paths crossed many times; I knew him and especially his wife Rena pretty well). If you visit the Center, the curator there, UK Professor Ron Pen, probably understands Niles and his music more than anyone else now living. I'm sure he was never taken in by the man's anticky lifestyle, but they were neighbors and got along, so he certainly knows what's real about the onstage and offstage Niles.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Ed.
Date: 09 Nov 02 - 08:11 PM

Are there any recordings of him available?

I listened to the samples at john-jacob-niles.com and found them fascinating. My girlfriend thought I'd gone mad (but that's not unusual)

I'm in the UK btw.

Ed


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Cubs
Date: 09 Nov 02 - 10:17 PM

As to authenticity, I don't know. I seem to remember checking some of the Ballad Book's Child numbers and all were authentic. After I heard a recording of Leadbelly's House of the Rising Sun I had no problem with very similar words' being adapted to very dissimilar tunes.

I do not remember not knowing that Niles wrote I Wonder As I Wander and Black Is The Color. I also knew about Go Way From My Window and Venezuela as Niles is credited on the Belafonte recordings. Had Niles not written the last two, we would not have the Belafonte recordings or the Josh White recording of Go Way From My Window.

A song is a song is a song and, at some point in the recent or distant past, the song was written by someone. I think we have become too hung up on legalities and "the right thing to do" (another way of saying Political Correctness) to the expense of musicality and musicianship.

If there is a witch hunt afoot, how about Dink's Song? Does anyone else believe that Alan Lomax wrote it and pretended to have collected it?

Two quotations come to mind about the topics here. Duke Ellington is reputed to have written about music that, "If it sounds good, it is good." Pete Seeger wrote (I believe at the end of the preface to the collection of songs he wrote with others), "If, in a hundred years, a collector wants to call these songs Folk Songs, my bones will not object."


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: John Minear
Date: 10 Nov 02 - 05:24 PM

Going all the way back to the beginning of this thread and Sandy's August, 1999 entry about the Child ballads in Niles' BALLAD BOOK, I am curious as to whether there is any record of anybody who ever tried to actually go out and find any of Niles "sources" to see if they existed, were still alive, or had living relatives. He does mention a lot of names and actual places in his book. I realize that the dates are pretty early for any actual survivors now, but what about descendents?

It's always struck me as too bad that there is no way to sort the wheat from the chaff with regard to all of those ballads in his book. They do tend to be unique in both tune and text when compared to other collected versions, so that route is not very helpful. I just wonder if anybody ever bothered to track down any of his "informants" and if they did whether they ever wrote up anything about that. I'm a great believer in checking out the footnotes and have discovered many wondrous things that way - or complete lack thereof - in some amazing places. T.O.M.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST
Date: 10 Nov 02 - 05:46 PM

To re-iterate Ed,

Are any recordings currently avaialable?


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Kim C
Date: 11 Nov 02 - 11:30 AM

I don't know about any recordings, but I have another question. Is "Jesus Jesus Rest Your Head" another one that he wrote himself?


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST,lighter
Date: 14 Apr 03 - 03:39 PM

Just as a matter of interest, Niles's "Venezuela" appears in the book "Songs My Mother Never Taught Me," by John Jacob Niles and Douglas Moore, illustrated with great cartoons by "Wally" Wallgren, and published in New York by The Macauley Company in 1929. The book offers, along with comparable stories, an account of how the song was known to British sailors during World War I. A tough yarn to take in, Jack!


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Stephen R.
Date: 28 Dec 03 - 11:18 PM

Turtle Old Man's question is a good one. Look at JJN's descriptions of the singers in the Ballad Book--most of them do not give the sort of information one would need to find the alleged singer, his or her descendents or neighbors, or anything of the sort. In addition, the Ballad Book was published only decades after the songs were supposedly collected, and most of the singers would have been dead anyhow. The sort of info we find in the standard collections--Collected from John Dinkydoodle, age 58, East Grumpus, Kentucky, June 14, 1926--is notably lacking. Instead, we get vignettes about colorful characters with no surnames. If you ask someone where he got a song and the reply is something like: She was an old woman with a lively demeanor, surrounded by three generations of descendents, and she sang with a voice still clear but so soft that her words were sometimes hard to make out. Her homespun dress was getting threadbare but was freshly washed.--And so on, you may begin to wonder whether this is a real person or an invention.

Still, I wonder as I wander whether JJN's collection does not include songs just a bit retouched, still close to what he heard from some mountain man or woman. He liked to point out that he had spent years travelling about in the mountains, in contrast to the comparatively short but immensely productive visit of C#, and that he looked for unusual versions. That does not seem unbelievable. If he had been more up front about his outright compositions and his revisions of oral versions he actually heard, and had supplied usable information about his sources, we might be able to cite part of his collections with a good conscience. I don't find his "Little Mattie Groves" unbelievable as a traditional song, for example; but given the circumstances I wouldn't cite it among the traditional melodies.
If I recall correctly, Bronson included his versions in the first volume of his magisterial collection of melodies of the Child Ballads, and then eschewed them in the later three volumes, and since then it has been pretty generally accepted that his versions are not reliably traditional. If some of his songs are sufficiently authentic to be included in the scholar's corpus, he brought it on himself that the entire corpus is regarded as suspect.   

I find many of his songs quite beautiful (and also don't have the negative reaction to his singing that some experience); I certainly don't have a negative opinion of him in general. But I have to say that if no one checked up subsequently on the singers he supposedly got the ballads from, he made it pretty well impossible to do so, and that in itself does not inspire confidence in his accounts of the singers, colorful and sympathetic as they often are.

Stephen


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST,Frank
Date: 29 Dec 03 - 05:20 PM

It seems to me that changing traditional folk songs around or adapting them (to use the copyright term) is a part of the process of communal aural tradition. For this reason, if a song is listed
as an adaptation or traditional, it is a variant of a consistent theme. It thereby might qualify as being a variant of a folk song.

In collecting, not much attention has been given to how a song actually becomes a variant. It's taken for granted that it is an authentic variant because someone from the it's respective culture sings it.

Did Lomax write the "Dink's Song"? Probably not but as in the case of many of his published material, he messed with them by collating texts and maybe changing notes here and there.

JJN may have done this as well with his collections.

Frank


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 29 Dec 03 - 05:35 PM

Maybe it's better to think of him as having become part of the tradition, rather than as a collector staying outside. Traditional singers being collected often enough tell fibs about songs, the kind of fibs they think collectors might like to hear.

Often enough they might say they made up something they'd taken from someone else's singing, or that they learnt a version of a song from someone else, when in fact they put it together themselves. If it seems as if that was how Niles operated, it's all in keeping.

And at the end of the day, what matters are the songs.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST
Date: 29 Dec 03 - 11:47 PM

Robert Burns did much the same thing, with traditional Scots songs. Kipling did it with his Barrack Room Ballads.
I had the priveledge of meeting Mr. Niles, when I was going to Transylvania College. He was a very pleasant, and well spoken man, who was singularly tolerant of a clumsy college freshman. And YES his voice really was that high.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Niles Center
Date: 24 Jan 04 - 03:17 PM

The whole issue of Niles's compositional methodology is richly complex. In some ways, an attempt to understand a three-dimensional human and artist is bound to fail if we attempt to judge him or her in terms of "authenticity," "revivalism," "composer," "arranger," "plagiarism," and such static and judgmental terms.
       Niles grew up in a "folk" environment in Kentucky, learning many a song from his father who was a "traditional" singer. Niles also studied "art" music at the University of Lyons and Cincinnati Conservatory. He was a singer of opera, of popular songs, folk songs, and original songs. He was a part of the folk revival scene and participated in Newport, etc.   Conceiving of him as a "folk musician" or a folk revivalist is really a red herring--he was really coming from a vaudeville mindset....the transcendence of high and low art, the popularizing of music through stories and dramatic presentations.
      He did write original songs that were based on a kernel of a traditional music fragment....I Wonder As I Wander, Black Is the Color, Venezuela, Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head, Lass from the Low Countree, and Go 'Way from My Window are all original compositions in HIS version. In each case he adapted a fragment--a line or two, or in Black Is the Color, an entire text. He was sometimes ambiguous in his claims of authorship for a variety of reasons, but generally he was pretty accurate about what he did and did not do. Lawsuits always proved his claims to be correct. He kept very careful field notebooks from 1906 onwards that can generally authenticate his claims. Niles had an observant ear and eye, and he was a natural collector who recorded a wide variety of music. His purposes in collecting were diverse--natural curiosity, a desire to create a personal repertory, and a scholarly passion....Some of it he adapted, some he performed exactly as he recorded it, some just langguishes unused in note books.   I am finishing a biography, available in a year, that should clarify some of the veil of confusion that still surrounds his music.
    Like many another musician--folk or otherwise--he took what he found at hand, and made it his own through performance style, or song & text adaptation. Similarly, his "duicimers" were influenced by the lap dulcimers he encountered early in life, but he created his own "Nilesitars" (as Jean called them) in his own image to match HIS needs, his singing voice and his accompaniment style.   A performance of Hangman was very much a personal, idiosyncratic, stylized version of the traditional ballad, complete with colorful introduction, dramatic acted out cradling of the hanged person with the dulcimer, etc. This was striking performance of the song, though no one would ever accuse it of being an "authentic" re-creation of a folk ballad. Niles, the vaudevillian merely wanted to sell the song and the story. Niles the opera singer wanted to sell the drama of the narrative. Niles wanted the audience to experience the essential drama of this marvellous ballad.
    I have very much appreciated reading the thread, and am indebted to you all for caring enough about this music to participate in this continuing discourse. I hope that my few comments may contribute something to the dialogue, and I welcome the opportunity to attempt a clarification of any issues associated with Niles that I can provide based on archives at the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 24 Jan 04 - 03:35 PM

There will always be a question as to whether his "kernels" came from folk or were his own. His notebooks, after all, are not verified by others. They prove only that he was working on a particular song at a particular date.

This does not diminish his work, which we all appreciate; he was not the only composer who added a story to his compositions.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 24 Jan 04 - 04:42 PM

I certainly appreciate his work. Just don't ask me to listen to him!

Dave Oesterreich


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Lighter
Date: 24 Jan 04 - 06:10 PM

Niles Cebter, a valuable post! May I suggest that JJN had conflicting feelings about his relationship to the songs? As he says in the Ballad Book, he insisted upon his authorship of certain songs because he really had dug them (or their originals) up himself without any foundation assistance and after great personal effort. On the other hand, he wished to identify himself completely with a romanticized Appalachian "Scotch Irish" tradition as both a performer and a collector. These motives are not entirely consistent, but who among us is?

I wonder what you think of his printed versions of "Judas," something of a test case, to me. PM me if you like. I'd like to examine the question further.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 24 Jan 04 - 06:33 PM

Lighter, Nile's "Judas" doesn't seem to be posted in Mudcat. If you have the lyrics, a new thread Lyr. Add: would be appreciated.


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Subject: RE: John Jacob Niles authenticity?
From: GUEST,Niles Center
Date: 27 Jan 04 - 04:05 PM

Dear Colleagues,
I am afraid that my attention to this list is going to distract me from writing the book on Niles. At the same time, this forum proves to be a most interesting source of discussion concerning aspects of Niles's career as a "folk musician."

I freely admit that it is often difficult to externally "authenticate" "kernels" of Niles's collecting which lead to his original collecting. On the other hand, I find myself convinced by the integrity of these notebooks after examining them over a period of 25 years. He would have had to be an extraordinary fraud to have created these notebooks from 1906 to the end of his life.   The sketches are very convincing in the way he worked out the bits of melodic or text fragment. For instance, the oft-repeated story of "I Wonder As I Wander" which was collected from the singing of Annie Morgan....Niles noted that he heard her sing this fragment 8 times and tried to write it down, paying her 25 cents each time. The journal does record eight different transcriptions scrawled in pencil with slight variations in them. Niles also noted paying her a quarter for her various attempts and described the scene at Murphy, NC in pretty specific detail. H e would have had to be an enormous fraud to create such sketches and conjure such ffully fledged stories and musical sketches on page after page of these notebooks. In "Black Is the Color" it is very clear the way in which he adapted the text, exploring different options while remaining true to the two versions he collected in Perry County, KY. These sketches closely resemble North Carolina versions (and Jean Ritchie's family version, so there is no doubt about the "kernel" in this case.

The ballad scholarship is a little more difficult to address. A scholar visited me at the University of Kentucky to "prove" that Niles manufactured his version of the "Corpus Christi Carol" ("Down in Yon Forest." The results of this thorough investigation are printed in a fine article in _Southern Folklore_ 49:2 (volume 49) 1992. David Reed Parker did find that Niles had collected a version of this rare ancient carol in the New World, but he also noted various sorts of anomalies in the recorded versions by both Niles and Gilchrist.

The sources for "Judy, My Judy" are described in some depth in his journals as well as his Autobiography (unpublished) but I have not been able to track down descendents of the singers to "authenticate" the versions. The sketch books do provide a pretty clear record of what Niles "thought" he heard. I believe he tried to record ballads with fidelity, though he certainly also affected the "way" that his source performed by badgering informants, etc.

In any event, Niles preserved some interesting music and text, and wrote some wonderful songs in the style of folk music. His voice was peculiar and ecentric, but audiences seemed to find his stage presence very charismatic at a time when "authenticity" was not the measuring stick for his type of public performance. Remember, I noted that he was essentially a vaudeville performer who had access to a folk derived repertoire.

I hope that this additional posting helps lift a little of the fog surrounding Niles's complex career. Please know how much I appreciate the contributions many of you have made to this thread and other related conversations concerning Niles. You are a particularly astute congregation.


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