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January 18-24, 2006

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Folk Balladeer

John Jacob Niles' songs of hill folk


By Gabe Meline

The first record I listened to in 2006 was a collection of early Scottish murder ballads sung by the most grippingly unusual interpreter of folk songs to grace my turntable in the last 10 years, John Jacob Niles.

Bob Dylan fans the world over were introduced to Niles in the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, where, for a few brief seconds, we see Niles, part Dr. Seuss, part Charles Dickens, an old, ghostly figure with white hair strumming a dulcimer and emitting a high, plaintive howl. I, for one, was floored. Who was this guy? Why hadn't I heard of him, and what planet was he from?

I have long been a Dylan fanatic. I was already familiar with the many characters who "taught Dylan everything he knows," all the Eric Von Schmidts, the Dave Van Ronks, the Ramblin' Jacks. Any little pieces of the Dylan puzzle--and there were many--had, one by one, become personal fixations over the years, and I had assumed a pretty comprehensive collage of Dylan's distillery. Then came John Jacob Niles, and it was like taking that collage, stretching it across a country road and watching a fruit truck crash through it.

All at once, Niles became the ancestor not only to Dylan, but to Jeff Buckley, Joel Grey, Kurt Weill and Thom Yorke. He was the Violent Femmes' "Country Death Song" in the hands of a neutered Nick Cave, and he sang like a feral turkey being slowly boiled. To hell with Devendra Banhart--this was the freakiest folk music in the world.

Anyone with the same reaction to those few seconds of footage in No Direction Home probably soon discovered that Niles' recordings were all unavailable on CD, and that the bidding wars on eBay for his LPs had, overnight, turned into bloodless battles of the wallet and the will. This month, two CD reissues of John Jacob Niles' music should restore order to the desperate and crack open the public door to Niles' music.

I Wonder as I Wander: The Tradition Years (Empire Musicwerks) collects Niles' best-loved songs, including "Go 'Way from My Window" (Dylan fans will undoubtedly recognize this phrase as the first line in "It Ain't Me, Babe"). Also featured is the gothic ballad "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," a song that took Niles five years to write and that turns up in many a singer's repertoire, never ceasing to stop listeners dead in their tracks.

But I Wonder as I Wander was recorded in 1957, and though it's a suitable document of Niles' catalogue of songs, his panache for the dramatic flourish is ever more present in the import reissue My Precarious Life in the Public Domain (Car Culture-Ola), originally recorded as Folk Balladeer between 1938 and 1941 during an era when he hunted throughout the Appalachians for mountain folk tunes. Highlights include "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," a one-chord dirge in which Niles acts out a condemned woman's final hours in four different characters, and "Our Goodman," a schizophrenic vocal skirting between tender sentiment and antagonizing indictment. This is Niles at his thrashing, curdling, yeowling best.

As the rains poured down that Jan. 1 morning, flooding most of the North Bay, as a new year with an endless war introduced itself and as my beautiful wife slept off an ugly hangover, there was no finer soundtrack than Niles' ominous, eerie falsetto, his gurgled ruminations on pen-knife stabbings and stolen butter churns, his simple, calming dulcimer supporting his discombobulating, sinister inflections.

This is the New Year, Niles seemed to be saying: the voice of the devil will rise and laugh at us, the bubbles of fabricated comfort will burst, the harsh reality will make itself known and a hard rain, indeed, is going to fall.


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