Saturday, August 7, 2010

John Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles
10.75" x 8.3"
oil on wood. 2010

For three weeks now –I'm a slow reader– I'm working on this book, a birthday present (thank you Anne), And They All Sang by Studs Terkel. The book is a compilation, a transcript of interviews Terkel conducted for the Chicago Public Radio over the course of roughly half a century. More than half the book deals with classical music, and if we learn anything from it is how great Caruso was and how well respected the maestro Arturo Toscanini. One can also not escape the idea that the older generation is skeptical about the younger. The rest of the book deals with popular styles such as jazz and folk. The preface of the book is an interview with John Jacob Niles, it bridges the two worlds of classical and popular, and is for me one of the highlights of the book. Niles came from a musical family and had a 'classical' training. He was sort of a musical 'wunderkind', wrote music when he was 13 years old. Niles has the most amazing falsetto (at least since the last castrato, and the only one to make records, Alessandro Moreschi died in 1922) I have ever heard. The name John Jacob Niles has always been a familiar one to me but I never had payed much attention. He was never in a Top 100 until this year, even though some of his songs like Black is the Color, I Wonder as I Wander, and Go 'Way From My Window have been standard Top 100 fare when performed by others.
John Jacob Niles is an amazingly strange character. A writer as well as a singer, a scholar, a musical anthropologist, an instrument maker, folklorist and aristocrat, Niles, with so many talents, was a true renaissance man. I'm certainly envious. My talents are limited and my pitch is far from perfect. I had to give up my musical career at a very early stage, I would have stuck with music if I had it in me. I love music and with this project I think I've found a niche to be something like a musician, a musicians' painter. It's a relatively new development as I used to be an artists' artist. Painting big ideas on a large scale. I didn't have the bigness in my character to sustain those big ideas, the ego, the confidence, the discipline, the ambition. I did all right but it just wasn't mine to sustain. With the Top 100 I have found a sustainable project. Based on hobby rather than intellect, I've been doing it practically all my life.

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