In the latter half of the 19th century, Francis James Child, an American scholar and Professor of English at Harvard University, traveled England and Scotland learning and collecting ballads, which he eventually published in a volume titled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. When he died, John Jacob Niles was four years old and living in Kentucky. By the age of 16, Niles had collected his first ballad, and by the time he published The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles in 1961, he had been learning and recording ballads for decades, grouping them according to their corresponding Child Ballad.
But as John Jacob Niles notes in his introduction to The Ballad Book, the tunes he recorded, though descendants of their Child forerunners, are decidedly American. Niles did not go abroad to study the music of others, but learned instead the music of his people, the songs passed down since settlers’ first arrival in the south, melodies and lyrics so long in the making that their original authors are unknowable. These songs are our connection to the past, to the most nascent part of the human soul as creator. These are our oldest songs.
How strange then that if it were not for The Ballad Book they might have been lost. Many of the songs in The Ballad Book have never been recorded, and as rural communities transition in an age of great technology and urbanization, they are unlikely to continue on in a purely aural form.
So it is that we seek to record the lesser known ballads of The Ballad Book.
Our aim is two fold: Our primary aim is that we record this music so that it not be lost, so that the legacy of John Jacob Niles remain in public consciousness longer.
Our secondary aim is to grow deeper roots in the folk tradition. We have been playing music together since we were seventeen years old; if we are ever to dig-in and focus, now is the time, and I can think of no music or project more in-line with our tastes or values as musicians.
Accordingly, we are taking 2015 to work our way through The Ballad Book. We are releasing two recordings a month, along with our musings on the songs. We will also use this project as an opportunity through which to learn more about folk music traditions: we are currently looking into acquiring a dulcimer, taking classes on shape note singing, and we are hoping to make it to some folk festivals.
Along the way, we hope to reach out to fellow musicians who care about the primary purpose of this project.
So in the words of John Thomas Niles, father of John Jacob Niles, “Old-timey family music came from the people, and it should go back to the people” (Ballad Book, pg. xvi).
Here are your songs.