Category: Intellectual History and Methods

I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles

By Ron Pen. 2010. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8131-2597-8 (hard cover).


Reviewed by John Bealle

[Review length: 1050 words • Review posted on September 17, 2014]


Ron Pen's I Wonder as I Wander is a biographical synthesis of the diverse paths that comprised the life of folksong collector and singer John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). Pen's focus is on Niles's Kentucky roots and how they shaped his approach to folksong.

The book is a valuable contribution to music history in part because Niles was so prodigious a source. His encounter with American music can be said to have spanned eight decades, and he recorded much of this in a 703-page typescript journal. His life was rooted in formative experiences in his native Kentucky, then in an embrace of cosmopolitanism in Paris and New York, then in a return home where he began a recording career as a Kentucky native son.

Pen's narrative documents the guiding influences of Niles's early life. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Niles began collecting songs as a teenager, inspired by a song his mother jotted down during a visit with neighbors. Long before he was exposed to folksong discourse, he began the series of notebooks, filled with observations and collected songs, that were the basis for his recordings and published collections. "Go 'Way From My Window" was collected during this time, decades before it was the subject of a copyright dispute.

There were also early experiences with musical performance, most related to Louisville's emergence as a modern city. As a youth there Niles attended medicine-minstrel shows, vaudeville shows, and symphonic performances. Vaudeville, which Pen associates with pretensions of class mobility, was particularly influential: as a teen, Niles observed and practiced the use of homespun culture recycled as stage performance.

In 1917, Niles was dispatched to France for service in World War I, including a period in Paris. His wartime experiences included recital performances, visits with Gertrude Stein, study at the Parisian Schola Cantorum, and collections of wartime songs. Paris brought Niles face-to-face with exuberant modernity, particularly French impressionism, and the understanding of the vernacular that was prominent in it.

During this period, his approach to folksong began to materialize. Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting (1925) was based on remembered observations of Kentucky camp meetings. For its arrangements Niles drew from the harmonic style of impressionist composers, particularly Henri Duparc. Singing Soldiers (1927), a collection of African American soldier songs with accompanying illustrations and narrative, was modeled after Théodore Botrel's Les Chants du Bivouac (1914). These impressionist-inspired arrangements brought him to the attention of Carl Engel, then newly installed as president of the G. Schirmer Inc. music publishing house. They began a long collaboration, initiated with the publication of Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs (1929) and Seven Negro Exaltations (1929).

From this point forward, Niles's career was yoked to folksong. He established a folksong recital duo with contralto Marion Kerby. He then worked as an assistant to photographer Doris Ullman, traveling throughout Appalachia with her. During their travels he collected assiduously, taking down many of the traditional ballads that he would later perform and publish.

In 1936, at the peak of his artistic career, Niles moved back to Kentucky. This was a homecoming, designed to provide access to his family in Louisville, to music resources in eastern Kentucky, and to trains for touring. Pen follows Niles's description of the land on which he would erect the house where he would live until his death in 1980. There Niles installed a studio and began the substantial catalog of recordings of folksongs for which he is remembered. He continued touring, often by car, and from the vantage point of his native Kentucky he experienced the breadth of the postwar folksong revival. He continued composing, notably including settings of the poetry of Robert Merton. Pen draws the final threads of his narrative around Niles's love for his native state.

In folklore circles, Niles is remembered for his ambitious song collecting and also his paradigmatic encounters with folksong authenticity. Pen takes care to frame this within the contour of Niles's life. Shaped by early collecting experience and by vaudeville, Niles viewed traditional song as common intellectual property, and adaptation and arrangement as individual creative work. For this he ran aground on the one hand for presenting as folksong material that had little or no basis in tradition ("I Wonder As I Wander"), and on the other for the use of his arrangements by other presenters, which he viewed as property rights infringement ("Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair"). Pen insists that in these cases Niles cannot be understood in folkloristic terms, that he was guided more by practices of Chautauqua and vaudeville than by folksong.

Pen steers clear of other critical issues that pertained to collectors and folklorists who were Niles's contemporaries. The cultural production of Appalachia is not discussed even though Doris Ullman was one of its important figures. Niles's fleeting relationships with the singers is not critiqued, nor his lack of advocacy on their behalf. Nor the class affectation of recitalists as it pertained to folk materials. In all of these cases, Niles’s guiding instincts privileged a different array of concerns.

But Niles did have principled views on folkloric matters. He felt himself an exponent of a canon of American national song. He had a theory of folk performance and mediation. He had opinions about the projects of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. Foremost, the homespun persona that he perfected for the stage was an all-consuming way of life for him, a means of engaging fellow Kentuckians.

Niles did not elaborate on these ideas — in fact, some were known only through his wife Lena’s observations of him. The consequence is that I Wonder as I Wander does not engage the folklore paradigm that has so long misunderstood John Jacob Niles. Instead, mostly by default, it imbues Niles with a libertarian hue, as if his convictions were sufficient merely because he lived so faithfully by them.

The place where we stand to gain the most from I Wonder as I Wander is in relation to Niles’s music. Niles left a prolific catalog, and his recordings, wild and inexplicable and eccentric, will only increase in esteem among the mysterious relics of the twentieth century. Pen provides us with, hands down, the ablest guide to understanding an artist who might otherwise be an enigma. It is in that capacity that his book most excels.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.