I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles (review)
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I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles. By Ron Pen. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Pp. 408. $35.00 cloth)

It is delightful that Niles has finally received a biography written by an author of such enthusiasm and diligence. Ron Pen reintroduces us to a figure of seminal importance in American musical history, someone whose creative energies and influences overflowed numerous boundaries and whose legacy is a constant question to prevailing standards of “authenticity.”

Niles was born in Kentucky in 1892, and thus grew up just as the first “folk boom” was gaining steam under the influence of Appalachian ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp. Niles did not have to travel far, given that his own father was a font of song and story, but he was omnivorous, equally inspired by the balladeer, the minstrel man, and the Sunday choir. Marking a lifelong trend, he was not content to notate and imitate what he heard. Instead, he adapted the folk idiom to compose original songs. “He exhibited a penchant for refracting traditional music to suit his own vision of how he felt the song should be sung,” Pen notes (p. 47). He took his talents to war, and came out of World War I not only with a corpus of popular soldiers’ songs but with a stronger grounding in composition gained from studying with European classical composers and musicians. He returned to folk music in the 1930s, teaming up on the concert stage with Marion Kerby and presenting interpretations of American folksong before a trans-Atlantic audience in ways that brought him more financial than personal satisfaction. Niles created a more fulfilling partnership with the photographer Doris Ullman, and their work in the Appalachian mountains had a particularly powerful influence on his style and repertoire. The growing professionalization of folklore and its standards for song-collecting made Niles an increasingly controversial [End Page 93] figure, but he impressed audiences with his talent at crafting a coherent artistic statement. Although his career truly took flight during the folk music revival of the 1950s, his success was muted by the evolving imperative to collect and preserve “authenticity,” a concept that Niles thought limited his creativity. Thus he ended his career, much as he began it, in the vortex of “conflicting forces of preservation and of transformation” from which his legacy has even yet to escape (p. 105).

Pen has an admirably light touch, particularly in presenting the technical aspects of Niles’s compositions as well as in explaining the cultural context in which he worked. Prone to the biographer’s prevailing fault—an overriding affection for every hard-won fact—Pen’s narrative sometimes bogs down in granular detail. “Niles and Ulmann left New York City early in the morning of Saturday, April 14,” he writes in a typical passage, “and checked into the Raleigh Hotel in Washington, D.C., that afternoon. At this point they were traveling with two automobiles; Uebler was chauffeuring the Lincoln” (p. 173). This leaves Pen less room to explore the analytical issues he raises only sporadically and with more insight than enthusiasm. “I knew I had to blend two powerful forces, my person and the personality of my informant,” Niles noted at one point (p. 221), and this striking and honest response of an artist to his material might have made a fine place to bring together the disconnected critical threads Pen presents throughout the narrative, and to show us how Niles encourages us to push in new analytical directions about creativity, folksong, and the commercial stage. Pen seems tired of the debate, and perhaps reasonably so. Nevertheless, in a quieter way he seems to concur with Niles that the dilemma is not so hard after all: folk music is music that folk make. [End Page 94]

Gavin James Campbell

Gavin James Campbell is professor of American history at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. He is the author of Music and the Making of a New South (2004) and a former music editor at Southern Cultures.

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