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I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles by Ron Pen (review)
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As Ron Pen acknowledges, John Jacob Niles (1892–1980) is a controversial figure in the various arenas in which he is known. For many folklorists and ethnomusicologists, both contemporary with Niles and later, he was a fake, someone who falsely claimed authorship of traditional folk songs. For his audiences, nationally and internationally, he was a genius, the “Dean of American Balladeers.” Pen adroitly and fairly provides deep context for and details from Niles’s life to provide both the general reader and the scholar an abundance of material to form a considered opinion of Niles and his contributions. That final considered opinion may be as conflicted and inherently contradictory as Niles’s manifested life.

Niles was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1892, traveled to Europe while in the Army, performed in mostly Eastern seaboard locales in the States in the 1920s to early 1930s, had aspirations for becoming an operatic singer, collected folk songs and stories throughout the Appalachian region and elsewhere, and eventually settled outside Lexington, Kentucky, in 1939, at his Boot Hill Farm, where he lived until his death in 1980.

Ron Pen directs the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, where he is also a music professor. No doubt Pen knows the materials surrounding this enigmatic figure better than anyone. His expertise is evident in the depth of research exhibited in this book. For instance, Pen does not merely note that Niles made a folk song field trip through Appalachia at various times; he notes where he was on each day, and which inn or hotel he stayed at, even where he might have eaten, whom he was visiting, and whom he socialized with. This book is replete with incredibly minute details that only a long-term consummate researcher would be able to complete. Typically, such deep biographical research creates two effects: first, researchers begin to feel they know and understand their subjects personally, in all their habits, thoughts, and idiosyncratic behaviors; and second, researchers can potentially find themselves biased toward their subjects. Readers of this biography will recognize Pen’s intimate knowledge of Niles, but I also deem his treatment of Niles as a remarkably accurate, generally unbiased accounting of his life.

In Pen’s biography, Niles is an enigmatic, shape-shifting figure. His many interests crossed blurred lines, and he lived within a wide variety of social circles. Understanding Niles as he perhaps understood himself helps to resolve the problem. Niles’s interests lay in folk music, art music, popular music, vaudeville, woodworking, high society, folk society, and academic society. His main interests were in performance, and, egotistically, in himself. His main mode of communication, whether musically, verbally, or through his woodworking, was an amazingly creative fictive construction of self. Even in his extensive and detailed personal notebooks and logs, he would construct imaginative fictions that are difficult to sort from fact. Thus, he posed himself as folk-lorist, as operatic composer, as a Kentucky folk, as the consummate wood craftsman, and as a chorale composer—and the public and academia believed his posturings because he was, in fact, good at all of them. He saw himself as someone who constructs art from the life around him. A contention he made, from his early years on, was that all art, in whatever form, should be recognized equally as art, not hierarchized into fine, popular, or folk art, an argument reflected, and debated, in contemporary folklore scholarship.

I Wonder as I Wander is valuable for folklorists. It is an interesting, and at times frustrating, book both because Niles appears as an ungraspable individual and because the structure that Pen uses for the book doesn’t always clarify the ambiguities in his life. Pen generally organizes the book by chronological themes. At times, this approach becomes confusing. The narrative reads as though events in Niles’s life immediately follow one another in time, while in fact some of the episodes are separated by years. Thus, the reader has to pay attention to the years covered at any one point. Likewise, the editors should have caught a few errors, the most egregious being the nearly identical repetition of entire paragraphs or phrases...


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