1880 book on Fisk Jubilee Singers & their songs
  • Dialect songs of James Weldon & J. Rosamond Johnson
  • A 1957 book of calypso songs by William Attaway
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    Auction Finds

    African American camp-meeting songs captured in another’s hand

    When I saw the thin song book at auction, I was excited. From its title “Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting,” I assumed that an African American composer had written songs derived from a long-ago camp meeting.

    The arranger of the songs for piano and voice was a man named John J. Niles, and the songs were compiled in 1925. I’d never heard of him so I Googled his name. I found that Niles was not African American, but a Kentucky white man who had listened to the songs at church services, and had adapt them and put them to paper.

    Niles wrote in the book’s Foreword that the songs were the “impressions gained while attending Negro Camp-meetings in Kentucky. They are based on traditional tunes but are absolutely not the so-called spirituals.” He was careful not to call the eight songs spirituals. They were said to be based on the style of impressionist composers.

    "Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting"

    The front cover of the song book “Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting,” published in 1925.

    Niles was collecting folk music at a time when spirituals were a predominant form of African American musical expression that stretched back to slavery, where it was used to communicate suffering, pain, supplication and calls for freedom. By the late 19th century, groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers took the music international, composers such as Harry T. Burleigh took it to the concert stage, and brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson and others published it.

    Niles was a composer, folk singer and transcriber of oral songs, some of it from the people of the Appalachian Mountains. Several well-known singers have recorded his works, including Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and actress Marlene Dietrich.

    “I was born in Kentucky, and believed during the early years of my life that the population of the United States of America was largely made up of colored people,” he says in the Foreword. “I played with colored children, fought with colored children, saw colored people working in the fields during the day, and dance their near-barbaric dances in the evenings (singing all the time), while the whites sat around under the trees and in other shaded places, telling the colored folk how their work should be done, and when to do it.”

    John J. Niles

    John Jacob Niles with his dulcimer in 1942. Photo from the John J. Niles Photographic Collection at the University of Kentucky.

    He acknowledged that he and his white boyhood friends would go to African American church services to make fun of the worshippers.

    “But as I began to grow up it became more difficult to laugh. The emotion of the negro was contagious; I was moved by the sincerity of his devotion. Not that the religious side of the service took hold of me, but the many and varied forms of expressions did. These early impressions I have never forgotten. The cries. The shouts. The strange language used by some of the older negros when under the spell of religious fervor.

    “The most serious misconception of this generation is to look upon the musico-emotive outbursts of these religious meetings from a humorous angle. Only the people who do not understand the Negro will do this (many of the northern colored people are to be counted in this case).”

    John Jacob Niles was born in 1892 into a musical family starting with his grandfather. He received his earliest music teachings from his mother, and he started writing folk songs as a teenager, including “Go Way From My Window” when he was 16. The genesis of the song was from an African American ditch-digger who worked on his father’s farm.

    "Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting"

    Lyrics to the song “Pray On, Brother,” including “For before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in the (de) grave. And go home to the (de) Lord and be sav’d.”

    Niles studied in France and at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and sang folk music on the radio in Chicago during the 1920s. He began publishing his music, starting with “Impressions” in 1925 and “Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs” in 1928.

    He journeyed to the Appalachians as an assistant with famed photographer Doris Ulmann, and while there, began transcribing folk songs sung by the southern Appalachian people. He also toured the United States and Europe with folk singer and actress Marion Kerby, who also collected African American folk music.

    Niles collected the songs of African American soldiers during his service in the Army during World War I and produced a song book titled “Singing Soldiers,” which he dedicated to the “American Negro Soldiers who made this writing possible.” In the 1930s, he began his recording career for RCA Victor.

    "Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting"

    Lyrics to the song “Heaven,” which ends with “Heaven, Heaven, home of the blest, Heaven! where I know I’ll find rest.”

    His adapted Christmas song “I Wonder As I Wander” became the title of the second volume of an autobiography by African American writer Langston Hughes of his life in the 1930s (it was published in 1956). Mahalia Jackson also recorded the song.

    The song originated from a little dirty blonde girl who sang three lines of it for quarters on a street in North Carolina in 1933 to raise enough money for her impoverished family. Niles adapted and arranged it.

    Niles performed for many years into the late 20th century. He died at age 87 in 1980.

    In the Foreword, he suggested that whether the songs were done in order or separately, “Heaven” should be the closing number.

    "Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting"

    The back cover of the song book shows an ad for spirituals by Clarence Cameron White, an African American composer and violinist.


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