Dear John Jacob Niles,
I was seventeen when I first heard your voice. You were singing “Go ‘Way from my Window,” and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. Your theatricality. The emotion of your vibrato. The strength, confidence, of your falsetto.
That was before I knew you’d written my favorite Christmas hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander,” or before I’d heard you sing it, your version a thousand times more haunting, more beautiful than any other. Now every time I listen, I am transported to the Appalachians where you first heard the fragments of it from a young girl, paying her pennies so she would repeat it. Every time I listen, I feel the cold bitter air of the mountains in December, the crisp click of naked branches, the meagerness of a man wandering out in the vast expanse of wilderness that used to be.
And that was many years (seven years, to be exact), before my brother-in-law would give Jonathan your ballad book for his twenty-fifth birthday. Though we’d been singing folk music together several years, Jonathan and I were at once struck by what a treasure it is. To read one of your collection tales is to fall completely in love with the volume.
We began, slowly, to pick out the melodies for the songs least familiar to us. We were surprised by how many beautiful ballads have not been recorded, and so a plan slowly took shape, to learn, record, and perform selections from The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, especially those you did not record.
You are now gone, and so we cannot know what you would think of our plan. We use, in part, the quote of your father’s, printed in the introduction, as our permission: “Old-timey family music came from the people, and it should go back to the people” (Ballad Book, pg. xvi). Our primary aim is that we record this music so that it not be lost, so that it remain in public consciousness longer.
Our secondary aim is to grow deeper roots in the folk tradition. Jonathan and I have been playing music together since we were sixteen 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.
So though you are now gone, I write this to you as a statement of intent: Jonathan and I will proceed slowly and respectfully with The Ballad Book, honoring it as a way in which to connect with the music of a people and land we love, our homeland and yours too.
With respect and warmth,