August 24, 2010
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v2.1 Reference

I Wonder as I Wander

The Life of John Jacob Niles

By Ron Pen
Foreword by Rick Kogan
Louisville native John Jacob Niles (1892–1980) is considered to be one of our nation's most influential musicians. As a composer and balladeer, Niles drew inspiration from the deep well of traditional Appalachian and African American folk songs. At the age of sixteen Niles wrote one of his most enduring tunes, "Go 'Way from My Window," basing it on a song fragment from a black farm worker. This iconic song has been performed by folk artists ever since and may even have inspired the opening line of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe."

In I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, the first full-length biography of Niles, Ron Pen offers a rich portrait of the musician's character and career. Using Niles's own accounts from his journals, notebooks, and unpublished autobiography, Pen tracks his rise from farm boy to songwriter and folk collector extraordinaire. Niles was especially interested in documenting the voices of his fellow World War I soldiers, the people of Appalachia, and the spirituals of African Americans. In the 1920s he collaborated with noted photographer Doris Ulmann during trips to Appalachia, where he transcribed, adapted, and arranged traditional songs and ballads such as "Pretty Polly" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair."

Niles's preservation and presentation of American folk songs earned him the title of "Dean of American Balladeers," and his theatrical use of the dulcimer is credited with contributing to the popularity of that instrument today. Niles's dedication to the folk music tradition lives on in generations of folk revival artists such as Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, and Oscar Brand. I Wonder as I Wander explores the origins and influences of the American folk music resurgence of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally tells the story of a man at the forefront of that movement.

About the Authors

Ron Pen, associate professor of music and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and the Appalachian Studies Program at the University of Kentucky, is the editor of The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles and of Jean Ritchie's Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians.


"A gracefully written biography of a performing artist, composer, and folklore collector who was a powerful cultural force in twentieth-century America." —Alan Jabbour, founding director of the American Folklife Center"

"In what is billed as the "first full-length biography of the 'dean of American balladeers,'" the University of Kentucky professor takes on the influential Louisville-born songwriter and folk singer."—Lexington Herald-Leader"

"The enigmatic figure of John Jacob Niles, collector, songwriter, composer, and scholar, receives its due in the new biography from Pen."—Library Journal"

"The University Press of Kentucky should be congratulated for publishing this fine volume on the life of John Jacob Niles. Ron Pen has done a masterful job of weaving together the various sources, beginning with Niles' own rustic memoirs, along with Rena Niles' more sophisticated recollections of events concerning the comings and goings on the concert trail both small and great. It deserves a wide audience."—Br. Patrick Hart, Cistercian Studies"

"Pen covers the history and evolution of Niles' songs and those whom he collaborated; he delightfully fuses professional facts with anecdotes and gives an inside look at the great performer's personal life."—Louisville Courier-Journal"

"In this carefully researched, detailed, even-handed biography, Pen . . . reveals Niles as a fascinating eccentric who 'became unable to disentangle his stage persona'—as a folksy Kentuckian—'from his real personality and fell victim to his own myth'—of a man with a romanticized Anglo-Celtic past."—Choice"

"Niles was . . . an important cultural influences, both as an musical archivist and creator, a and worthy of Pen's ardent and scholarly attention."—Morning News"

"Pen writes about Niles 'warts and all,' as the saying goes, but in I Wonder As I Wander the warts are not allowed to overwhelm a telling portrait of an American original, both in his music an in the unapologetic way John Jacob Niles lived his life."—Sun Chronicle"

"Pen has given us an exciting picture of a remarkable Kentuckian we should know and acknowledge for his significant contributions to American folk arts."—Kentucky Libraries"

"Pen should be congratulated for providing such an insightful portrait of this fascinating individual. The book succeeds as a study of an important twentieth-century musician and composer, but it also provides a springboard for future studies on the nature of folk music and the meaning of the Appalachian region."—Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association"

"The crazy-quilt pattern of American history includes few musicologists with Niles' breadth; his story is an unlikely and fascinating one. Pen tells it well it's an authoritative book that also happens to be a pretty good read." —Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine"

"As one reviewer has commented, 'John Jacob Niles was a Renaisance man who could build his own instruments and furniture and grow his own food.' . . . I Wonder as I Wander is the first full-length biography of this multifaceted performer and artisan . . ." — Sing Out!"

"The life of John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) offers complexity and presents challenges to scholars of southern music. . . His biographer, Ron Pen, explores these complexitites and ostensible contradictions skillfully with subtle insight and tasteful, eloquent writing. . . The book reads well as a social history of twentieth century music performances." — Arkansas Review"

"Pen does an admirable job telling the story of an important figure in the history of American music." — Studies in American Culture"

"Pen has written a fine and detailed account of a collector and composer...providing not only a fine biography of a largely forgotten pioneer but also a detailed musical analysis of Niles's work, something frequently missing from musical biographies."—Ohio Valley History"

"This well-crafted, highly detailed biography...presents compelling reasons for a reconsideration of Niles by those who have previously dismissed him."—West Virginia History"

"The life of John Jacob Niles offers complexity and presents challenges to scholars of southern music...His biographer, Ron Pen, explores these complexities and ostensible contradictions skillfully with subtle insight and tasteful, eloquent writing."—Arkansas Review"

"Rests on Pen's deft use of Nile's unpublished field notebooks, correspondence, and diaries."—Journal of Southern History"

"Without Ron Pen, we wouldn't have a Niles more complete, more complex, than the outworn, dusty spite tales ever made him."—Appalachian Journal"

"Reintroduces us to a figure of seminal importance in American musical history, someone whose creative energies and influences overflowed numerous boundaries and whose legacy is a constant question to prevailing standards of 'authenticity.'"—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society"

"Pen excels at making history come alive: his descriptions of country and urban settings are rich with sensory detail, and his portraits of Niles and his contemporaries are well rounded and compelling." —American Music"

"He tells a well-rounded story, and that surely is the best way to engage with a subject such as John Jacob Niles." — David Atkinson, The Folklore Society, UK"

"Readers of this biography will recognize Pen's intimate knowledge of Niles, but I alos deem hs treatment of Niles as a remarkably accurate, generally unbiased accounting of his life. I Wonder as I Wander is valuable for folklorists. — John B. Wolford, Journal of American Folklore"—John B. Wolford, Journal of American Folklore

"The book is artfully written and reveals the author's wide knowledge of all kinds of music. It is one of the best biographies I've read dealing with such a complex and controversial figure as John Jacob Niles."—Journal of Appalachian Studies

9780813125978 : i-wonder-as-i-wander-pen-kogan
408 Pages
$40.00 USD

Other Titles by Ron Pen

Appalachia in Regional Context

Dwight B. Billings
Mar 2020 - University Press of Kentucky
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Kentucky by Design

edited by Andrew Kelly, with contributions by Madeleine Burnside, Philippe Chavance, Lauren Churilla, Larrie Curry, Erika Doss, Michelle Ganz, Lee Kogan, Kate Hesseldenz, Tommy Hines, Jerrold Hirsch, Jean M. Burks, Ron Pen, Janet Rae, A...
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