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John Jacob Niles has a New Kentucky Home

by Jeff Worley

John Jacob Niles had a simple mission in life: he wanted to spread the music of rural America, especially the music of Appalachia, around the world. For half a century he played the dulcimers he made, wrote hundreds of songs, recorded 15 albums, and wrote a popular book titled The Ballad Book, a collection of songs, dramatic texts, and off-beat stories of people and places in remote Appalachia, which was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1961.

Photo of Ron PenRon Pen, director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, in front of a double-sided glass display case that includes several dulcimers Niles used in his performances and studio sessions. "Niles took traditional instruments and re-crafted them to suit himself," Pen says.

Niles, who was born in Louisville in 1892 and lived to be 87, is still leaving his musical mark on the world, thanks in large part to the spacious and well-equipped new center that bears his name at UK. Housed in the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center, the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music includes a 60-seat performance gallery, reading rooms and research facilities, and access to several significant collections.

Ron Pen emphasizes that the center was made possible by gifts from the Niles family. "We have all of John's books, photos, papers, recordings—a huge collection," says Pen, director of the center, who contrasts this new location with what passed for a "center" in previous times. "Before, the John Jacob Niles Center could be found only in my cluttered UK office and in my head."

An impressive double-sided glass case greets UK students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the center. This display includes several dulcimers Niles used in his performances and studio sessions—including some he made himself—and other folk instruments that he made for his own use. "Niles took traditional instruments and re-crafted them to suit himself," Pen says, an adaptation that accounts for a couple of the hybrid instruments on display: a "cello-influenced" dulcimer and a lute-like dulcimer.

Niles wrote some of the most widely played songs in America, specializing in the ballad: "Black Is the Color," "Go 'Way from My Window," "I Wonder as I Wander," and "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head."

Pen explains that while the focus of the center is on Niles and his various musical contributions, the center's mission is to facilitate research and performance of the whole range of American music, from unpolished grassroots front-porch picking to more cultivated musicianship. "We do have a special emphasis on the musical culture of the southeastern United States," Pen says, "but we have materials here that date from Colonial times to the present."

One of the center's most impressive collections is of American hymnals, from Helen and Glenn Wilcox in Western Kentucky. "This is one of the largest collections of American hymnology in the country," Pen says. "We purchased it when the Niles Center was first being developed, and it's an absolute gold mine of reference material—about 5,000 books." Pen adds that the rarest and most valuable book in the collection is the Bay Song Book, a collection of hymns sung by the Massachusetts Bay colonists and the first book ever published in America. "Some people say this book is more valuable than the Gutenberg Bible because it's more rare," he says. Pen is quick to point out that the center's copy is not a first edition.

Pen was the natural choice as director of the center. He has had a lifelong interest in folk music, and he wrote the foreword to the republication of The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, out of print for many years, and shepherded it through production. This edition was published in 2000 by the University Press of Kentucky.

"One of my earliest musical memories was singing a folk song, which turned out to be a Kentucky folk song, in public," Pen recalls. "I was seven, I think, and was somehow chosen to be in a chorus at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago. A group called the Limelighters was recording a song and wanted to be backed by a group of children." The song was "The Riddle Song" ("I gave my love a cherry, that had no stone/ I gave my love a chicken that had no bone") and it made a lasting impression on Pen. "I absolutely fell in love with it. The melody could make me cry!"

He had already been taking piano lessons since the age of four, so he admits he had a jump-start on acquiring an appreciation for music. But Pen confesses he agreed to take piano lessons only because of the alternative. "My mother said it was either that, or I had to take a nap," Pen says, "and of course no self-respecting kid wants to take a nap."

He took piano lessons with the same teacher for 14 years and also along the way picked up the guitar.

"This was just something I wanted to do," he says. "A few years later, I found myself playing in a band called Cartoone House, which was the name of the house where I lived at the time with some college buddies. We played around some, including at the Washington Monument in an anti-war rally in the '60s."

Pen's strongest musical desire was to be a composer, so he familiarized himself with all the classical instruments and was a composition major at Washington & Lee University in Virginia. "But then when I got to UK, Don Ivey suggested that I should be a musicologist, not a composer. Well," Pen laughs, "I've become a music historian, which is pretty much the same thing."

He came to UK in 1983 and earned a Ph.D. in musicology in 1987. Pen joined the faculty here four years later.

"It's been wonderful to watch our School of Music grow these last 20 years. "We're much more vibrant now; musically, we've become a national institution."

And it's clear Pen is enjoying his role in the John Jacob Niles Center. "What we honor at this American music center is the music that's closest to home. This is the music that has the greatest power to affect us, and to nurture the community."

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