Prof Pen pens a philobiblist’s need

     (AAPNW) – Associate professor of musicology at the University of Kentucky School of Music, John Pen, who is also the Director of the university’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, new book, “I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles” is the first biography devoted to this influential American musical figure, where author Pen paints a multifaceted portrait of Niles, a musician who has largely been forgotten despite his considerable impact on the folk music community. Pen’s detailed narrative looks at all aspects of the musician’s life, to give readers a greater view and appreciation for the “Dean of American Balladeers.”

     Over a period of 27 years, Professor Pen conducted research that also included Niles’ own accounts: journals, notebooks and unpublished autobiography; thusly weaving a written publication that intensely examines the musician’s career, not only illuminating his influence on the American cultural landscape, but also illustrating the country’s musical development, ranging from rural folk roots to World War I songs and from the burgeoning American art song tradition to the folk revival.

     At the age of 12, John Jacob Nile’s love of music started with him collecting folk compositions, and by 1907 he composed his first song, “Go ’Way from My Window,” the same song that would be quoted by Bob Dylan nearly 60 years later in “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

     Niles served in the army during World War I and became interested in collecting the songs of fellow soldiers, later publishing collections such as “Singing Soldiers,” “Hell on Wheels” and “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me.”

     In 1929 he joined forces with Marion Kerby, a soprano with whom he would tour throughout the 1930s. Nile’s skills on the piano and distinctive vocal timbre set him apart as a performer, by which the two performed a varied repertoire of African-American compositions and “mountain music,” and Kerby often used her skills as an actress to interweave anecdotes and folk stories into the concerts.

     In the early 1930s, he began his collaborations with photographer Doris Ulmann, taking several trips to Appalachia that proved to be highly influential on his style. Not only did he gather more songs for his collections, but a series of encounters with local musicians, most notably Balis Ritchie, the father of the famous folk singer Jean Ritchie, motivated him to adopt the dulcimer as one of his primary instruments.

     Over the years, Niles’ headstrong dedication to his career drastically affected many relationships, resulting in the dissolution of his professional relationship with Kerby, as well as his divorce from his second wife, Helene Babbitt. Aspects of Niles’s personal life, especially his longtime relationship with Ulmann, often drew questions from outsiders, but he quelled the whisperings with his third and final marriage to Rena Lipetz.

     To contact author Pen, email:

Published by on September 2010. Filed under Archives, Educator's Row. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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