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I Wonder as I Wander

The Life of John Jacob Niles

Ron Pen

Publication Year: 2010

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 Using Niles’s own accounts from his journals, notebooks, and unpublished autobiography, Pen tracks his rise from farm boy to songwriter and folk collector extraordinaire.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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. iv


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pp. v


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

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...

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pp. xiii-xv

A book that occupies more than a quarter of a century of the author’s life owes a great debt to many people who have shared that life and the book’s lengthy gestation. First and foremost, I need to express profound gratitude to Hooey, my wife and my life. In every sense, this is her book as well as mine. My family has provided a garden of delight and an oasis of support...

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Overture: Sunrise in Clark County

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pp. 3-7

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 fi rst wave of mountains beyond the snaky green Kentucky River. Looking out over the rugged fieldstone walls hugging Grimes Mill Road...

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Chapter 1. The Families Gather at the River

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pp. 9-23

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...

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Chapter 2. The Move to Rural Jefferson County

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pp. 25-39

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”...

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Chapter 3. Independence and Adventure

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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...

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Chapter 4. Jack Niles Goes Off to War

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pp. 53-63

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...

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Chapter 5. Life after the War

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pp. 65-73

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...

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Chapter 6. Creating a Life in the Big Apple

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pp. 75-109

In fall 1922, aft er 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...

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Chapter 7. Kerby and Niles Present Folk Music on the Concert Stage

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pp. 111-134

Even while Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs and Seven Negro Exaltations were 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...

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Chapter 8. Doris Ulmann

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pp. 135-181

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 fi ercely determined—absolutely driven by the purpose of her art...

First photo section

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Chapter 9. Transitions and New Beginnings

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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...

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Chapter 10. Life in Lexington

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pp. 197-215

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. Th e next day they located an apartment to rent, the second floor of a house at 231 McDowell in the Chevy Chase neighborhood...

Second photo section

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Chapter 11. Settled in Kentucky

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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

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Chapter 12. Dean of American Balladeers

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pp. 229-243

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...

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Chapter 13. Consolidation of a Life in Music

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pp. 245-257

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...

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Chapter 14. Do Not Go Gentle

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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 the Cincinnati 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...

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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 aft er 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 confi dante of Rena Niles, in the commodious living room that was designed by Helm as a concert space...


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pp. 285-326


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pp. 327-339

Sound Recordings of John Jacob Niles's Music

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pp. 341-353


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pp. 355-371

Back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813125985
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125978

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2010