Folk legend Niles’ CDs long overdue
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HIS VOICE is haunting – evocative, commanding and pure, most often an eerie falsetto. He sings of hangmen, gamblers, murderers, witches – and their Saviour.

John Jacob Niles is a legend of American folk music – and so, of course, his albums were not available for decades. In the past few years, however, three of his classics have finally been released.  

Two of them – I Wonder as I Wander and An Evening with John Jacob Niles – showcase both his mastery of English and American ballads, and his strong faith in Christ. A third, My Precarious Life in the Public Domain – contains no sacred material, but is every bit as skillful and powerful as the others.

The recordings have been remastered; aside from a few minor flaws in the originals, they are immaculate. Now, if only someone would release Niles’ fabled collaboration with Thomas Merton.

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For another slice of Americana at its best, check out The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both available from Naxos on one DVD. The documentaries were commissioned in the mid-30s as morale boosters, and to promote Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  

But the films transcend the level of government propaganda. River is a straightforward tribute to the Mighty Mississippi. Plow is more complex, celebrating the pioneer spirit, progress, patriotism and the contribution of the humble farmer to victory in World War One.  

It’s a romanticized portrait of American history; First Nations are barely mentioned in passing. But the hokeyness and skewed perspective is more than redeemed by the film’s treatment of the Depression.

Pare Lorentz’ extraordinary imagery is enhanced by his imaginative editing.  And Virgil Thomson’s sweeping, lush and inventive music – newly recorded for this release – is a marvel, incorporating hymns and spirituals.  

    – DFD

March 2008