• John Jacob Niles: The Boone-Tolliver Recordings

I bought an old LP by American folksinger and song collector John Jacob Niles in the late 80s, when I worked in record stores. I picked up Folk Balladeer largely because the cover attracted me—it featured a black-and-white photo of square-jawed, professorial Niles holding a strange-looking lute upright, beside his face. I’d never heard of him before, and when I listened to the album I was startled by his peculiar singing, which seemed to collide folksy coarseness with academic formality. In the liner notes to that record, Robert Angus writes of Niles, “He freely admits that he cultivated the upper end of his singing register because of the effect it had on audiences. ‘I soon discovered the electric effect of a male alto C-sharp, and this led to compose a melodic line involving the highest notes in my range.'” What that means—and what you can hear in the songs below—is that Niles veered into a crazy falsetto that’s utterly disorienting. To me it tends to sound either borderline insane or throat-grabbingly passionate.