Bai Konte and John Jacob Niles

In the Mid 70s, I was finishing college in Toronto, and was wondering what to do with the approaching summer when I happened on an article in a 1968 National Geographic magazine on the American singer, composer and ballad collector John Jacob Niles. I had been playing Appalachian dulcimer for a number of years and when I saw a picture of Niles playing a dulcimer made from a cello body, I was fascinated. The article mentioned that he lived in Louisville Kentucky, not a far bus ride from Toronto. So I called Louisville directory assistance (for the young folks reading this, this was an operator that would find any number for you) and got his phone number. I promptly called him, and asked if I could come visit, as I was a dulcimer player. Surprisingly he said yes. Corresponding with his wife by mail we set up the date and time a few weeks after I finished my courses.

KonteAs school finished, I went to the Mariposa Folk Festival on Centre Island, which was featuring Pete Seeger, kora player Bai Konte, dulcimer legend Jean Ritchie, eclectic multi-instrumentalist Ken Bloom (whom I later played with on other festival stages). I spent most of one day just hanging out with Bai Konte. He played an early set and then simply walked off stage to a nice spot under the trees and continued to play his kora. I followed him and sat listening to him play and tell stories till dusk. Konte was the first kora player to tour the west and he already had a huge reputation, yet he was a very approachable man that had the time for anyone that had the time to sit with him.

The next day I quickly met Jean Ritchie and told her I was going to meet John Jacob and a young woman overheard our conversation and inquired when and how I was going to do that. It turned out she was a Doctor living in Louisville and had a big house and offered me a place to stay and a ride out to John Jacob’s farm as it was quite far out of town. A couple of weeks later I took a bus to Louisville and a cab to her house. I arrived a few days early and spent most of my time sitting on her beautiful covered porch playing my dulcimer and talking to people that stopped to listen. The weather was warm, the birds and insects sang with my music, and I could see myself sitting on this porch for the rest of my life without a care in the world.

I was glad for the ride on the day we went to see John Jacob, as his house was down a long twisted road past tobacco fields and stone fences. Life was slow there; we drove past an old man sitting on a fence on the way down and he was still there many hours later as we drove back.

NilesWe arrived at John Jacob’s and he welcomed us in and showed me his instruments, which were just astounding. You can see pictures of them here. He was very polite to me, but he clearly was more interested in my companion. He then spent about two hours singing song after song to her, and telling her stories of his life. I didn’t mind to be a fly on the wall, as his voice was beautiful and it was a magical moment. Unfortunately I found it somewhat tricky to play his dulcimers, as they were only fretted for the chords he played, and I was more of a melodic player. But to see and hold them was a great experience, as each was unique.

We left feeling pretty honoured to have a private concert. We decided to press our luck and also seek out Homer Ledford, a well-known dulcimer maker in the region, and after a bit of driving around found his farm, talked to him a bit and had him play for us, and I played for him. But John Jacob’s music was still in our ears.

Arriving back at my hosts home, she told me that as a modern professional woman she rejected the “Southern Gentleman’s” methods of treating women, which John Jacob embodied earlier that day, but as he was a senior and such a great singer, she suspended her judgment and enjoyed the experience.

I kept in touch with John Jacob by mail over the years, but was never able to return. I can hear him still.

A review of a book on Niles

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

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