Music News & Reviews

Tom Eblen: John Jacob Niles' music is honored, and his collaborator remembers

Author and monk Thomas Merton, right, visited with John Jacob Niles, singer Jacqueline Roberts and accompanist Janelle Dishman, left, at Niles’ Boot Hill Farm near Lexington in 1968, shortly before Merton’s accidental death. Niles set many of Merton’s poems to music, with Roberts’ voice in mind.
Author and monk Thomas Merton, right, visited with John Jacob Niles, singer Jacqueline Roberts and accompanist Janelle Dishman, left, at Niles’ Boot Hill Farm near Lexington in 1968, shortly before Merton’s accidental death. Niles set many of Merton’s poems to music, with Roberts’ voice in mind.

He was a famous folk singer and ballad composer, hoping to make another mark in music before old age caught up with him. She was a singer and a restless young mother, yearning to use her musical talent and training for something more than directing a church children's choir.

John Jacob Niles and Jacqueline Roberts met in 1967 and were close collaborators for the rest of his life. Their dozen years together defined the last chapter of his career and charted the course for hers.

"My career became the music of John Jacob Niles," said Roberts, 78, who lives in Gratz Park and is an active vocal coach.

Niles was a major influence on the folk-music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Now his music is experiencing a revival of its own, with the 120th anniversary of his birth on April 28, 1892.

A record label in New Mexico just released recordings made in 1952 of Niles performing his songs in the high-pitched, theatrical voice that was his trademark. In Lexington, several well-known performers will appear in a tribute concert, A Celebration of John Jacob Niles, May 2 at the Kentucky Theatre.

Niles' best-known songs — I Wonder As I Wander, Go 'Way From My Window and Black Is The Color of My True Love's Hair — have become folk standards. But classical singers focus on the art songs he wrote in the years before his death in 1980 at age 87.

Many of those art songs — including 22 based on the poetry of Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton — were the product of Niles' collaboration with Roberts and piano accompanists Janelle Pope Dishman and Nancie Field.

"These are some of the strongest songs of his life," said Ron Pen, a University of Kentucky music professor and Niles biographer. "And they were written specifically with Jackie Roberts' voice in mind."

Roberts, a native of Russell in Greenup County, earned music degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Miami University in Ohio. After she and her husband, architect Helm Roberts, moved to Lexington from California in 1966, she got a job directing the children's choir at Second Presbyterian Church. Professionally, she was bored stiff.

Roberts had met Niles at Christ Church Episcopal after she performed his song The Little Family at an Easter service. Soon afterward, Roberts decided to give a recital at Second Presbyterian. On an impulse, she called Niles to ask what he would suggest she sing.

Niles invited her and Dishman out to his Boot Hill Farm off Athens-Boonesboro Road and made some suggestions. Then he asked them to try out one of his Merton songs to see how it sounded. "Apparently, he liked what he heard," Roberts said.

On the day of Roberts' recital, Niles and his wife, Rena, walked in and sat in the front row.

Roberts and Dishman started driving out to Boot Hill each Tuesday and Thursday. They would arrive at 10 a.m., work with Niles for two hours on his latest composition, then have a glass of wine and a sumptuous lunch prepared by the Nileses' cook, Mary Tippie Mullins.

"For me, it was a gift from heaven," Roberts said. "I had a 3-year-old, and I was just glad to have someplace to go twice a week."

The young women helped Niles explore new facets of songwriting. Those sessions led to performances at parties the Nileses gave at Boot Hill for their eclectic group of friends. Then, Niles asked "the girls," as he called them, to accompany him and his wife on concert tours all over the country, which Roberts did for a decade. In 1970, Field succeeded Dishman as the accompanist.

Niles was a controversial character. The way he borrowed and blended folk ballads into his own compositions irritated some academics. Many people were put off by his big personality, quirky voice and dramatic performance style, which included playing large dulcimers that he would embrace on stage like a lover.

"He came off as an arrogant person, and I was told that my career would never go anywhere if I worked with him," Roberts said. "Well, that was all I needed. I respected him. I didn't care what the community thought of him."

Roberts said the John Jacob Niles she knew was nothing like his public persona. He was patient and kind; an excellent musician and a well-organized composer. The greatest reward of their collaboration, she said, was being able to help shape songs literally as they were being written.

"It was like seeing something being born," she said. "I saw him in all his moods. I saw him cry when he was touched by the music. I saw him proud when a composition was finished."

One of their most special times came in 1968, when Thomas Merton left the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County and traveled to Boot Hill Farm to listen to them perform musical interpretations of his poetry. Although Merton's 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was an international best-seller, Roberts had never heard of him.

The Catholic monk arrived wearing jeans, work shoes and a sweater. "I thought he would be in a long robe and a hat," Roberts said.

Merton, she said, didn't seem to know what to make of Niles. "I think he found him to be a funny old man," she said. But he liked what Niles had done with his poetry. As Roberts sang, she saw tears in Merton's eyes.

Merton made a second trip to Boot Hill that year. Roberts said she thinks there would have been many more visits had Merton not died in an accident soon afterward while attending an interfaith conference in Thailand.

Over the years, Roberts became close friends with "Johnnie" and Rena, a Russian émigré who supported her husband's career as faithfully as Helm Roberts supported his wife's. Despite a busy practice in architecture and city planning, and the pressures of helping raise two sons, Helm Roberts photographed and recorded many of her performances with Niles.

Helm Roberts, who died on his 80th birthday on Aug. 26, is best known for designing the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort — a giant sundial that points to the name of each fallen soldier on the anniversary of his death.

Pen, the biographer, said Jackie Roberts made a huge contribution to the last chapter of Niles' career. Their collaboration "sparked his imagination," he said. "It gave him the will to keep writing at a time when most people retire."

Since Niles' death, Roberts has been a successful musician and a valuable resource for singers and scholars. "She has an interpretive knowledge of these songs that is really special," Pen said. "She is a very informed singer and a master teacher."

Roberts is often sought out by singers who want to know more about Niles' music and how to perform it.

"Occasionally, throughout history, a few composers have been able to collaborate with a performer in a special way, to have the luxury of trying out material and writing for a specific voice," Pen said. "This was one of those relationships."