Monday, August 30, 2010

John Jacob Niles - notes on technique

Almost a minute of John Jacob Niles singing "Go Away From My Window" ... segues into Bob Dylan, but first few seconds show JJN playing one of his dulcimers.

Also: Stills only but a beautiful song, "The Irish Girl" at

John Jacob Niles, Luthier [excerpt]
Research and documentation of the Niles "dulcimers," by Dwight Newton, organologist. w/ lovely picture of Niles, "dulcimer" and hound
Niles called his instruments "dulcimers." He certainly had a lot of experience with the authentic Appalachian instrument by this name, but he took the concept in a fairly radical direction. As he did with the old songs he had collected, he took the essential idea of a dulcimer and turned it into an icon. I believe Niles thought of himself as a balladeer in the bardic tradition of Scots-English poetry. Certainly his repertoire has its roots quite consciously in the British Isles. His vocal style is rhythmically free and declamatory, with great emotional expression, especially as he employs his stratospheric falsetto. The instruments were used in a minimalist way, strumming the strings in a simple down- down-down-down... stroke, or in some cases in a single rolled stroke at certain moments for emphasis in an otherwise a cappella performance.

Niles performed with at least eight instruments that he built himself. This research project focuses on these instruments as objects, but in truth, they really cannot be separated from Niles the balladeer. The reality is that these objects are not particularly good musical instruments -- their ranges are quite limited, thay have relatively poor volume considering their size, and they are all clearly the work of a folk artist, not a luthier. But their musical function was secondary to their function as theatrical props. He rarely played melodic tunes on his large dulcimers. In all cases the real star of the show was Niles himself -- his voice and his expression.

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