John Jacob Niles's dulcimers and playing

IRENE
IRENE
@irene
2 weeks ago
111 posts

Well now....this was interesting in that I wanted to know how his voice sounded after the comments here.   I went to youtube and hear, I WONDER AS I WANDER....very interesting voice and it could be an aquired taste.   When singing the "R"....it can stand out too much.   Then I didn't know that he wrote this song.  I've loved and performed this song often on the harp and will do so this year too.  I listened to Joan Baez and another one sing it.  Such a beautiful song with a message of great worth.  aloha, irene

John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
2 weeks ago
84 posts

Several people asked to see the article, so here it is.

Niles was a colorful character and arguably an important American artist. It is interesting he remains controversial a half century after his death.

John C. Knopf
John C. Knopf
@john-c-knopf
2 weeks ago
239 posts

Some were pretty strange looking.  He seemed to enjoy monkeying with fretting patterns on dulcimers.  I had to ignore the fretting pattern on a Nathan Hicks dulcimer he glommed onto in order to reproduce a Hicks dulcimer for our "Banjimer".  I'm not sure what the original Hicks pegs looked like either, since J.J.Niles threw some violin-family pegs in the mix.

Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
2 weeks ago
1,010 posts

I've seen photos of some of Niles's creations so get what you're saying, Strumelia.  




--
Robin T
one of the Moderators here :)
Keep a song in your heart!
Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
2 weeks ago
1,894 posts

A lot of the instruments he made over his lifetime were inventive hybrids of various instruments or instrument parts (like in one case using a cello body) in varying combinations. He was a big experimenter in design.

Many also had very creative fret pattern arrangements.  I think if an instrument has a diatonic (or partially diatonic) fret pattern, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a 'dulcimer'.  

Many of his hybrid instruments were quite showy, clearly intended to impress. Certainly JJNiles was well known for making 'grand flourishes'-  in his concert music performances, in his writings, his luthier output, even in the multitude of composed (and posed) photos taken of him. He was a unique person.




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
2 weeks ago
1,010 posts

@Banjimer Greg, I think I can only take JJNiles's singing in homeopathic doses.  :) Yet would like to hear, on a good recording, how he used plucked zithers. 




--
Robin T
one of the Moderators here :)
Keep a song in your heart!
Banjimer
Banjimer
@greg-gunner
2 weeks ago
63 posts

Try Googling "John Jacob Niles You-Tube".  There are a few selections from his recordings available there.  Be forewarned.  His singing will need to be listened to in small doses.  It's not for everybody.  

I sampled three or four of his songs and didn't hear much dulcimer playing.  Although the dulcimer may have not recorded well considering the emphasis was on his voice.

Personally, I couldn't take his singing, so there may be some dulcimer playing buried in the available recordings.  Good luck if you intend to listen to the recordings all the way through.  

Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
2 weeks ago
1,010 posts

I'm interested in hearing plucked dulcimers used in various contexts.  And know Niles made some wild instruments. . . I'm up for hearing some wild.  :)




--
Robin T
one of the Moderators here :)
Keep a song in your heart!
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
2 weeks ago
1,826 posts

The Grumpy Old Men got a private showing of Niles' instruments last spring during our Gathering in Berea, when we took a road-trip to Lexington.  Dr. Revell Carr, director of the John Jacob Niles Galley and the Center for American Music, and his staff, graciously removed all those instruments and more from their display cases so that we had a room full of dulcimers to fondle and measure.  Yes Niles played the "dulcimer" but many of his instruments were larger than a dreadnaught guitar body and carried as many as 10 or 12 strings!!

Folks who attend the second First Annual Berea Traditional Dulcimer Gathering, May 16-19, 2019, may also have an opportunity to visit the Gallery and Center and see those instruments.

John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
2 weeks ago
84 posts

Robin, virtually all John Jacob Niles's recordings have his dulcimer-playing on them. He used his dulcimers strictly for song accompaniment. They were huge, low-tuned instruments and he played rhythmically free arpeggios, strumming across the strings with either his thumb or fingers.

After starting this discussion, I followed up on the suggestions, writing Ron Pen, visiting him and Niles's instruments at the University of Kentucky, meeting and spending a day with Jan Potts touring the area, and writing a piece about Niles and his dulcimers for The Dulcimer Players News. It was published a couple of summers ago. Unfortunately the version which made it to print had some errors. If anyone would like to see the corrected version, drop me a line.


updated by @john-gribble: 11/29/18 06:39:07AM
Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
2 weeks ago
1,894 posts

Robin, I'll need to pull that CD out and look it over.. it's been quite a few years now since i wrote that review.  I can do this tomorrow around midday.   :)




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
2 weeks ago
1,010 posts

@Strumelia Was there much play of Niles's dulcimers on the cd you reviewed some years back? 




--
Robin T
one of the Moderators here :)
Keep a song in your heart!
John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
3 years ago
84 posts

Thanks, Dan, I plan to do that.

Dan
Dan
@dan
3 years ago
114 posts

...and then you could always write a letter to Ron. He would be an incredibly informative "Pen" pal!! lol

ron.pen  (at)  uky.edu

 

John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
3 years ago
84 posts

Well, thank you kindly, Jan.

Jan Potts
Jan Potts
@jan-potts
3 years ago
445 posts

Well, if you have a free weekend, come on!  You can sleep on my couch!




--
Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
Site Moderator

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
3 years ago
84 posts

Thank you all for your replies. I may need to go visit Dr Pen. "Santa Claus wearing flip flops," eh? Sounds like a long-lost cousin. Lexington is a little off the beaten track for me, nowhere close to Fuji Machi, Nishi Tokyo, but I've made similar journeys in the past. 

Jan Potts
Jan Potts
@jan-potts
3 years ago
445 posts

Dan:
You could always plan a trip to University of Kentucky and visit Ron. He has many of the instruments there and a boat load of stories about JJ!

And no matter what time of year you visit Ron, it will be like meeting Santa Claus wearing flip flops!

Never pass up an opportunity to jam with him--it's quite an experience!

Jan




--
Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
Site Moderator

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke
Dan
Dan
@dan
3 years ago
114 posts

You could always plan a trip to University of Kentucky and visit Ron. He has many of the instruments there and a boat load of stories about JJ!

Strumelia
Strumelia
@strumelia
3 years ago
1,894 posts

I wrote a review of a JJNiles reissue cd for the Oldtime Herald magazine a few years ago (they paid reviewers the princely sum of $20).  I did a lot of reading before I wrote the review, because I wanted to be fair and not listen to his music out of context.  It was an interesting adventure. 




--
Site Owner

Those irritated by grain of sand best avoid beach.
-Strumelia proverb c.1990
Robin Thompson
Robin Thompson
@robin-thompson
3 years ago
1,010 posts

JJNiles is an acquired taste, I think. ;) 

The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles only contains a single mention of both dulcimers and the Ritchie family, according to a quick check of the index.  




--
Robin T
one of the Moderators here :)
Keep a song in your heart!
John Gribble
John Gribble
@john-gribble
3 years ago
84 posts

I have long been something of a Niles fan, although I realize he is not to everyone's taste. I recently read "I Wonder As I Wander," a biography of him by Ron Pen and there was some interesting information about how he came to use dulcimer for accompaniment, including his encounter with the Richie family when Jean was a child. But there wasn't much specific about his instruments, technique, or tuning.  Does anyone know of any articles or book chapters with details about these topics? Or have I found a new research project for myself?