UK professor devotes his career to chronicling John Jacob Niles

University of Kentucky associate professor of musicology and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music has just published a new Niles biography, "I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles." He was photographed at the Niles Center on Sept. 13, 2010.
University of Kentucky associate professor of musicology and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music has just published a new Niles biography, "I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles." He was photographed at the Niles Center on Sept. 13, 2010.

Ron Pen doesn't know when he started writing the book.

"I don't think there was ever a conscious decision to do it," the University of Kentucky associate professor of musicology said. "It was so intuitive, I think it grew like a bad zucchini in a garden."

The book is I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles (The University Press of Kentucky, $35), Pen's long-awaited biography of the iconic Central Kentucky musician who was a key figure in folk and art music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"This is the product of a lifetime of work," Richard Domek, a UK music professor, said while holding his copy of the book at a recent signing at the Morris book shop. "This is exactly the sort of work we need to be doing at the university."

Book shop owner Wyn Morris recalled working with Pen on the book, which came out last month, when Morris worked at The University Press of Kentucky, the book's publisher.

"We would joke that one day I would own a book shop and he would have a signing for the Niles book there," Morris said while Pen inscribed copies of the book for friends and admirers. "It's surreal that it's happening."

At the event, Pen regaled the audience with readings from the biography, anecdotes, some fiddle playing and a measured rendition of I Wonder as I Wander that got rave reviews from patrons.

Friends and students now regard Niles and Pen, who is the director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at UK, as somewhat inseparable. But the relationship with Niles had an inauspicious beginning.

Pen came to UK as a graduate student in 1983 with designs on pursuing a doctorate in music composition. When he took his entrance tests, advisers told him he did very well on history.

"They said, 'You should be a musicologist, and we'll give you a fellowship and throw money at you if you do that," Pen recalled. "I said, 'What's a musicologist?'"

Soon after he arrived, musicology professor Don Ivey directed Pen to a collection of Niles' work and other artifacts the university had acquired after the musician's death in 1980 at age 87.

Pen was vaguely familiar with Niles through his own endeavors in folk music, so he was kind of interested.

Then, he visited Boot Hill Farm in Clark County, where Niles' widow, Rena, lived.

"Meeting her was the most breathtaking experience because suddenly you are in the company of someone who knew and lived and experienced this life," Pen says. "She had this earthy elegance born of the Russian court."

Pen reels off Rena Niles' roots in 19th-century imperial Russia with the same ease as he discusses most aspects of John Jacob Niles' life. Visiting his home and seeing things like the table and chairs where Niles wrote, which are now in the Niles Center, gave Pen a tactile sense of the man who would become a focus of more than a quarter-century of Pen's life.

"It's Clark County, but it's also this whole other world," Pen says. "He created this persona of the minstrel of the mountains. ... It wasn't this usual Clark County tobacco farmer."

In the UK collection, Pen had tremendous resources to draw from, including photographs, recordings, music manuscripts, published music and field notebooks that revealed Niles as a music historian himself.

Pen went about cataloging the collection. Toward the end of writing his dissertation, he moved to Clark County, just down the road from Boot Hill Farm.

Domek, the UK music professor, notes similarities between Niles and Pen, both men who circulated in the highly structured world of fine art music but also enjoyed less structured forms — folk for Niles and rock 'n' roll for young Pen, who is an accomplished folk musician and shape-note singer.

Pen's research and study resulted in a five-volume, 1,800-page doctoral dissertation.

"There's always this notion of, 'Oh, you finished a dissertation. Now you can publish it,'" Pen says. "Dissertations are the most dry, terrible bits of writing. Imagine a term paper of 1,800 pages."

Through the dissertation, Pen says, he got to know Niles intimately.

"What I did over the next 25 years was strap on Niles as a lens or glasses, and I could look at the entire world through him," Pen says. "So the book becomes more of a cultural history that just a study of Niles and assessment of his music."

In all, Pen says he was looking at 125 years to examine the world Niles was born into in 1892 and left in 1980.

Niles was a polarizing character in several ways. He was frequently accused of appropriating folk songs as his own and, like many musicians who cross genre lines, was often regarded with suspicion in the folk and classical worlds.

But he was always an immensely popular performer, revered for the beauty of his "male alto voice," and saw his music performed by the top opera singers of his day.

"He was a figure that transgressed folk, popular and elite culture in interesting ways," Pen says. "He really made it difficult to categorize him. He was at the leading edge of the folk revival in this country."

The biography aims to put all the work, accomplishments and contradictions in context.

"I want to see the story get out," Pen says. "I've invested so much time in it, I want to share it with people."

With the biography done, Pen has other projects to focus on, including working on a "performance and scholarly" edition of The Kentucky Harmony shape note hymnal and Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony of Ananias Davisson.

But he knows Niles will never be far from him.

"Twenty-seven years later, I can still find things to think about and question," Pen says. "I could have written this book for another 20 years — not that there will be a sequel."