John Jacob Niles, John Jacob Niles Sings Folk Songs

Johnny Black

By Johnny Black

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
Folk gems from a magnificently idiosyncratic but influential American balladeer

John Jacob Niles sounds like he might be deranged. His curious warbling, flights of fantastical falsetto, dramatic groans, melodramatic giggles and irregular phrasing, accompanied by his simple strumming on an oversized home-made dulcimer, sound decidedly bizarre to modern ears. But in 1928 this son of a Kentucky farmer wrote "Go Away from My Window," based on two lines sung by a Negro worker, and it is unmistakably the root of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe." And it was Niles'distinctive arrangement of the old folk tune "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" which became the song's definitive treatment, adopted by the likes of Nina Simone and radically transformed by Donovan as his '60s folk-rock hit "Colours." Niles makes for uneasy listening, sounding like something the crazed perpetrator of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre might have played on a wind-up gramophone but, once you get acclimatised to his many strangenesses, he repays the effort of listening many times over, with songs as creepy as hell, no matter whether they're about farmyard animals or tragic death as a consequence of unrequited love.