In January 1973, when folksinger John Jacob Niles was a mere 80, he penciled a note at the bottom of a letter, saying: "You might be interested to know that I am writing my autobiography. It is a task for a strong man which I fear I am not."
That may be what J.J. feared when he was 80. But he kept right on singing for another six years, until the night in September 1978, when he told an audience in Swannanoa, N.C.: "Ladies and gentlemen, you may tell your children that you were present for the last concert by John Jacob Niles." Though he still had concerts scheduled for months ahead, Johnnie said he "just knew, when he looked out and saw all those smiling faces, that this was it." He never sang another concert.
By then Niles, who died March 1, had performed recitals all over the country -- no one knows how many. In Washington, he sang at the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery, the Library of Congress and Washington Cathedral. Accompanying himself on one of the dulcimers he enjoyed making, Niles used his extraordinary voice with the skill of a great vocal master.
He once gave the best of all descriptions of that voice: "The nature of my voice has had much to do with the material of my performance.In the lingo of the concert stage, I did not live in the lower registers. I soon discovered the electric effect of a male alto C sharp, and this led me to compose a melodic line involving the highest notes in my range." Thus, long before the era of the first famous countertenors of this century, Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, John Jacob Niles was singing in heights that most males consider astronomical.
Not that he had not made a proper operatic debut as Des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon." But his voice was light, and he could see no point in spending his life as a comprimario, or second-level tenor. After his studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory, the University of Lyons in France and the Schola Cantorum in Paris, Niles, predating Pete Seeger and Burl Ives and all the other famous names among American folksingers, began to do in this country what Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok had done in Hungary. "I visited every country in the southern Appalachians," he later vowed.
Out of those visits came his deep knowledge of the roots and branches of American folksong: how they were sung in the Ozarks, how they sounded in eastern Arkansas, the dozens of different versions of many of them and often their European forebears.
John Jacob Niles had the two assets needed in any great singer: He could control his voice flawlessly at every point in its wide range; and he enunciated so that every syllable of every word he ever sang was perfectly clear. He could project that tiny thread of a voice in the great reaches of Washington Cathedral, creating a hushed mood into which no sound impinged until he had finished the last line of song. But put him in the intimate confines of the Phillips Collection, and you could feel the warm personal vibrations and that affection with which he regarded every one of his listeners.
After a while, Johnnie began to write his own songs, and out came a stream of words and music that have become a part of our greatest song literature, including "I Wonder as I Wander," "Jesus, Jesus, Lift Your Head," "The Hangman," "Go 'Way From My Window" and one of the most famous of all, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." One after another these were published by G. Schirmer, Inc., with copyrights you might think would have protected their author.
But some performers seemed to think there was something different about the ownership of these songs. In January 1973, for instance, there was an Inaugural Concert for the re-elected Richard M. Nixon at which Roger Wagner conducted a chorus and orchestra. A few days after that concert, this letter arrived from J.J.: "I was especially interested to read your review of one of the inaugural concerts, in the course of which Mr. Roger Wagner performed excerpts from Copland's 'The Tender Land' and my song, 'Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair,' both without any credit to the composers. After reading what Mr. Wagner did to 'America the Beautiful,' I shudder to think what he must have done to 'Black Is the Color.' I am thankful I was not present.
"The fact that 'Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair' is my composition, duly copyright by G. Schirmer, Inc., was obviously no deterrent -- any more than Mr. Copland's copyright gave Mr. Wagner pause. There is some consolation in the fact that I am in good company." As he later said, Johnnie became accustomed, if never reconciled.
In 1961, Houghton, Mifflin published "The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles," a work that its author said had taken him "a few more than 50 years." In its pages are not only the words and music of some of the great ballads of this country, but countless stories of the wonderful people from whom Niles gathered the songs. He tells about 77-year-old Aunt Selina Metcalf in Saluda, N.C., who sang "The Murdered Brother" for him. When he answered her question, "Be you a daytime or a nighttime fox hunter?" saying that he preferred the daytime variety, he was delighted when she told him, "Well now, I'm pleasured to hear it. A daytime fox hunter is a great comfort to a woman. This nighttime fox hunting gives a woman a lonely bed. Once a man gets into the habit of nighttime fox hunting, he'd a heap rather listen to the music of the hounds than to hear his old wife snore."
John Jacob Niles could spin yarns for days without stopping and he could just as winningly discuss the fine points of great opera singers for hours on end. Most and best of all, however, as his great recordings show, and they include all of his most famous songs, Niles could take you through a song like "The Hangman" and create in that tiny moment of time the same magical effect that Elisabeth Schumann produced when she sang "She Never Told Her Love" or Marian Anderson, in her great days, Schubert's "Ave Maria." For Niles occupied the very highest pinnacles of song.