By David Werther.
John Jacob Niles, I Wonder as I Wander; Carols and Love Songs (Empire Musicwerks, 2006)
In the summer of 1933, the Morgan family had brought their revivalist ministry to Murphy, North Carolina. They were camping out in the town square, using a local monument for a clothesline. When the police told them to leave, they asked for a little time to earn gas money. At two bits a crack, John Jacob Niles paid Annie Morgan [jumi/essayer.php], in an effort to get down the lyrics and melody of a song. Niles came away with several verses and some melody; these became the raw material for his haunting Christmas carol, "I Wonder as I Wander."
When I first heard that carol on a Kathleen Battle's recording, I immediately fell in love with it. It seemed to convey thoughts and emotions that had been embedded in my subconscious mind, but hitherto unrecognized. On a first hearing, I felt like I was being reunited with an old but forgotten friend. The melody and lyrics seemed to be both ancient and fresh. John Jacob Niles' music is like that; his male alto voice—described by Dwight Newton as a "stratospheric falsetto" — and self-accompaniment on a handmade dulcimer make for a unique combination, while his melodies and lyrics seem ages old. Listen to a medley and see what you think at http://www.john-jacob-niles.com/
The agelessness of Niles' music is, in part, a reflection of the fact that he was a collector of folk music. His songs capture, reflect and refract traditional folk songs. In recognition of the importance of his work, the University of Kentucky's John Jacob Niles' Center for American Music (see http://www.uky.edu/FineArts/Music/Niles/) contains 65+ cubic feet of manuscripts, recordings, and musical compositions, along with some of Niles' handmade instruments.
I Wonder as I Wander; Carols and Love Songs was first released in 1957, but only fairly recently has become available on CD. It's a treasure trove, and includes "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "Go 'way from my Window," "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Venezuela." In every case Niles' voice, melody and lyrics are arresting. There is a depth in these songs that cannot be fathomed.