soundstreamsunday: “Little Black Star” by John Jacob Niles

an-evening-with-john-jacob-nilesThe traditional folk music community — the collectors and pedagogues in the first half of the 20th century who defined the boundaries of the vernacular music fueling the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s — probably had little use for a John Jacob Niles, scholar and singer of traditional and local songs whose work bore an imprint so unique that his interpretations took on a life of their own. Armed with giant lutes and dulcimers of his own devise, he would sing in a classically-trained impassioned vibrato whoop (Henry Miller described it as “ethereal chant which the angels carried aloft to the Glory seat”), investing in his songs a Kentuckian-by-way-of-France mondo spirit that channeled, intentionally or not — for Niles was a Modern — what Greil Marcus would later call the Old Weird America, inspiring a young Bob Dylan and echoing down the years in the work of Jeff Buckley and Devendra Banhart, and less intentionally, I suspect, but somehow powerfully in Radiohead and Gazpacho.  Niles perhaps more than any other collector internalized the music he sought and found and wrote, seeing in it not a museum piece to be recited but a point of joy that deserved what he could add to it.  He found what resonated with him and built a bridge forward with it, and while Led Zeppelin may have covered Fred Gerlach’s version of “Gallow’s Pole” and not Niles’s “Hangman,” Jimmy Page probably had more in common with Niles as an artist who extended a musical legacy rather than dwelt on some phantom authenticity.  Here, on “Little Black Star,” Niles does the white man’s take on the “negro folk song,” complete with an affected pronunciation and an equally suspect attribution (some believe Niles might’ve just written this song himself).  Through it though the piece builds a kind of magic that’s difficult to shake, and like much of the John Jacob Niles’s catalogue, is hard to forget.

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