John Jacob Niles : American Folk and Gambling Songs 1956

The Gambling Songs of John Jacob Niles

Thoughts and reminiscences by John Edward Niles


The Gambling Songs were written by my father, John Jacob Niles, at the request of the famous baritone John Charles Thomas. John Charles Thomas, who had a very distinguished Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, became very well known with the American public on the radio. His renditions of "Annie Laurie" or "On the Road to Mandalay" were very popular with the radio audiences.

In those days--the 1930's and 1940's--White singers sang Black Music. There were not a lot of Black singers on the concert stage in those days with the exception of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. And it was Robeson who indirectly brought about the commission of these songs.

John Charles Thomas would sing on his radio concerts Negro Spirituals such as "Deep River" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in arrangements by Mr. Harry Thacker Burleigh. One week later, Paul Robeson would sing in a public concert the same Spiritual in the same arrangement. In so doing he would blow John Charles Thomas out of the water. After all, John Charles Thomas was white and Paul Robeson was black. But John Charles Thomas wanted to sing American Folk Songs. Mistakenly, many white singers thought that Spirituals were folk songs. They were not in the strictest sense of the word. However, John Charles Thomas wanted to sing material that was American and "folk" in nature. So he decided that he should have something that he as a white man could sing and Paul Robeson would not be able to "better" him with. My father thought that Thomas' reasons for the commission--trying to "better" Paul Robeson--were a bit tawdry but he needed the money and so he said nothing more about it until 40 years later.

John Charles Thomas had attended my father's Carnegie Hall recital in the 1930's and thought this would be a good source of material. He had heard my father sing "The Roving Gambler" and so Thomas asked him if:

1) He could make an arrangement of "The Roving Gambler" for him."The Roving Gambler" is a truly narrative song and there is no mistaking that. My father modeled the song on the Schubert song: "Die Erlkönig". There are three characters with three distinctive voices. That is what must happen in "The Roving Gambler".

2) The second question was: where there other songs that might be able to be put together in a cycle of songs for him-- John Charles Thomas--to sing. My father said yes there were three others but one of them was written for another singer and it might not be appropriate for man to sing.

The song in question was "The Gambler's Wife". It had been written for and was performed almost exclusively by Gladys Swarthout. John Charles Thomas immediately appropriated the song for himself, changing the text and the rhythm of the music to suit him. These alterations to my father's original song are what can be found in the published version of the song. Ms. Swarthout continued to sing the song in her version using the manuscript that my father gave her. The rest of the world knows the song in the version that John Charles Thomas made to suit himself. Needless to say, Ms. Swarthout was NOT amused by this turn of events. However, she did not say anything out of professional courtesy to a FORMER Metropolitan Opera Colleague.

The changes that John Charles Thomas made were the changes of words and of rhythmic structure of the songs. In fact, my father wrote out the songs in the uneven meter of the original performer. John Charles Thomas changed all of that to standard time signatures, much to my father's great distress.

That song, "The Gambler's Wife", was collected by my father in a most unusual way. In 1909, my father was working for a company called the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. He was a traveling salesman and repairman for the company. The Commonwealth of Kentucky was divided into four sales districts. Each district got a young man who would go to the local dry goods stores, feed stores or haberdasheries where there was a Burroughs Adding Machine. They would calibrate the machines, sell ink pads, paper rolls for the receipts and even make rubber stamps right there on the spot. My father's district was Eastern Kentucky. This was perfect for him. He could do his job selling office material and calibrating adding machines and when he was free he could go about the hills of Eastern Kentucky collecting folk music.

On one of these trips for the Burroughs Adding Machine company, he was in Whitsburgh Kentucky. It was a few days before "court day" and the city as already ablaze with activity. The owner of the boarding house where my father was staying in Whitesburg came up to him and said: "Johnny, there is a woman here who has come up from Hazard. She is trying to get her son out of jail. She says he has been brought up on charges. Well, we know what that means. So anyway, we feel sorry for her and are letting her stay here and for her room and board we have her do cleaning jobs around the boarding house and she helps in the kitchen. We hear her singing. I understand that you are collecting folk music. Maybe she knows some songs you might want to write down for your collection." (My father had been collecting since he was 15).

My father thought to himself: Hell, I don't have to go tromping around in hills and the hollers....I can go right into the kitchen and my job is done. So my father went into the kitchen where this lady was working and introduced himself.

"Good morning, Mrs. Johnson (that was her name, by the way) my name is John Jacob Niles, I am a collector of American folk music and I was wondering if you might be able to sing so few songs for me?" (My father then displayed his big toothy smile.....kind of like Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, big smile, lots of teeth, high voice). Mrs. Johnson looked up from her work and gave my father a rather steely look.

"Who's your daddy?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is your daddy Tommy Niles: Deputy Sheriff Tommy Niles from the Louisville City Police and a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Commonwealth Police and Militia. My father took a deep breath and said: "Yes." And this is what transpired.

You see, Mrs. Johnson's son lived in what we call in Kentucky a "holler." Now for you Yankees in the audience a holler is a valley that you cannot find. But if you do find it, you cannot get into it. BUT, if you are lucky enough to find it and get into it, you will NEVER get out of it. Thus is the true explanation for the movie DELIVERANCE. And in this "holler", Mr. Johnson engaged in the illegal practice of:

(Kentucky State Constitution, 1892)

In other words, young Mr. Johnson was a "moonshine." Somehow, the Kentucky State Militia under the leadership of Lieutenant Tommy Niles (my grandfather), got into the "holler" and arrested Mr. Johnson. They did NOT find the still--which according to my father was underground--but that did not matter at the time. I would, however, matter a great deal much later. And so, at this point, Ronnie Johnson was rotting in the loathsome jail of Whitesburg, Kentucky. So Mrs. Johnson struck a "devil's bargain" with my father:

"You get your daddy to get my boy out of jail and I will sing for you. And if I don't, I won't."

And she walked away from him. So my father thought for a while and then he walked down to the court house in Whitesburg and introduced himself to the county sheriff. "Well, of course, I know you, boy. Come on in. Your father is a fellow police officer and a personal friend. What can I do for you?" And then he told him. Well, you can imagine the "horse laugh" that my father got from the sheriff. "You want me to let Johnson go so his mother can do, what did you say? Sing some songs for you? You have to be joking!"

Well, my father pleaded and begged. After a while, the arresting officer and even the judge got involved in this rather lively conversation. So they went round and round the Mulberry Bush for about 5 minutes and they decided the following:

1) If Johnson will plead guilty to a lesser charge of breach of peace we, the city of Whitesburg, Kentucky, will let him go since the case is all circumstantial (remember, no still), and
2) Young Mr. Niles, my father, will pay his fine, which was the grand amount of $5.00. (One hell of lot of money in 1909).

And that is what happened. Johnson went free and my father was $5.00 poorer. And as he walked away from the City Court House he said to himself: "I am the biggest fool in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. This woman is not going to be there. She will not be able to sing. She will not even know any songs. And I am less 50% of my week's wages."

Well, he was wrong. Mrs. Johnson was so grateful that she literally turned into an Eastern Kentucky nightingale. She sang and sang and sang and in the end my father had to literally walk away from her to make her shut up. One of the songs that she did sing for him was one she learned from her mother called: "The Soldier's Wife". Several years later, my father, drawing upon his experiences with the gamblers at Reelfoot Lake, rewrote the song as "The Gambler's Wife" for Gladys Swarthout.

The song "Gambler Don't You Loose Your Place At God's Right Hand" has an equally interesting story. The melody for the song comes from a "contest song" which my father wrote in 1903 called "The Portland Rag". The song did NOT win the contest but he kept the manuscript for another opportunity. It came with the commission from John Charles Thomas. He took the melody and accompaniment of the rag and added words to it. The text came from a sermon that my father heard in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1931 while he was traveling as the assistant to the photographer Doris Ulmann.

Miss Ulmann and my father went to a small African American community about 5 miles outside of Spartanburg to witness a baptizing. These photos are now part of the Ulmann collection at the Getty Museum in California. The preacher--one Rev. George Jefferson Washington, IV, was standing knee deep in water of Brushy Creek, which flowed into the Saluda River near Spartanburg, SC, baptizing those who had sinned and who were going to sin for the next Millennium. After the baptizing, Rev. Washington got out of the water and on the banks of Brushy Creek, proceeded to preach a fiery 45 minute sermon the subject being: SINNER WATCH YOU STEP! He then proceeded to tell the congregation what would happen to them if they did NOT watch their step. His closing line was: "SINNER, DON'T YOU LOOSE YOUR PLACE AT GOD'S RIGHT HAND, 'CAUSE HELL AIN''T NO PLACE FOR COLORED FOLK TO BE."

After the sermon, my father went up to Rev. Washington and told him how much he liked the sermon but he added that he was puzzled by the last line. Rev. Washington looked at my father and asked where he was from. When my father said New York City, the Reverend replied: "Well, young man from New York City, my people have suffered greatly at the hands of the white man here in South Carolina. And I would personally regret any member of my congregation sinning so badly as to be sent down there (indicating hell with his index finger) and take up room down there thereby denying any White Man from South Carolina his well deserved seat in HELL." My father drew himself up and replied: Well Reverend that is not a very Christian Attitude. To which the Reverend replied: "Neither is theirs." My father did get permission from Rev. Washington to use his line in the song. He changed the word "colored" to "reelfoot" and the song was complete.

"The Gambler on the Big Sandy River" was written by my father several years earlier for his own concerts with Marion Kirby. The accompaniment not only imitates the sound of the banjo, but also the sound of a bell. The bell--or rather bells--that were part of the warning system on the Big Sandy River. The Big Sandy River forms the border between the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the State of West Virginia. The river was--I emphasize WAS--a river with big sand islands that were actually collections of silt that made navigation of the river almost impossible. So, a very energetic young congressman from Kentucky by the name of Alben William BARKLEY decided that something needed to be done about the Big Sandy. So he did what all Congressmen do when they come to Washington, DC. He got a public works project initiated with HIS name on it. The object of the project was to make the Big Sandy navigable. To this end, dredging was done and locks and dams were installed by the US Army Corp of Engineers at the expense of the US Taxpayer. It also meant that Congressman Barkley, soon to be Senator Barkley, would be reelected. However, during the summer months, when the water level was down, it was decided to open the locks so as to raise the water level. So it was necessary to let people along the river know about the opening of the water locks. So in the days before Klaxton Horns to warn everyone for miles around, they would hire little boys--it was summer and they were not in school if they went to school at all--for 50¢ to run up and down the paths on the side of river with a bell yelling "HIGH, HIGH, HIGH, HIGH." The little boys had a bell that had the circumference of a 9" pie pan. Attached to the bell was a handle the size of a rifle butt and the clapper was as big as a claw hammer. In point of fact: the bell was bigger than the boy!  In the music at the beginning of The Gambler on the Big Sandy River, the vocal parts say "HI, HI, HI, HI." It really should be "HIGH, HIGH, HIGH, HIGH."

So there were now four Gambling Songs by John Jacob Niles. Then about a week before the first performance, John Charles Thomas contacted my father and asked him if he could write a FIFTH song! This was to be more dramatic and less folk oriented in nature and as he told my father "it should show off my high notes." Not wishing to deny any singer a chance to show off his or her high notes, my father wrote the requested song, "The Gambler's Lament", in about 24 hours. The interesting feature of that song is the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure. In the left hand of the piano, my father wanted the pianist to emphasize the lowest note in imitation of a church bell. One other point, the Major Chord at the end of the song was added by John Charles Thomas. He said that is injected a note of hope for the salvation of the gambler's soul. My father hated that and always asked that it be removed. Not that there is no hope for salvation: Just that there would be NO major chord at the end. Nothing more than that. Salvation perhaps, but a Picardy third, NO! So the pianist should just play the single bass note in the left hand and let it fade out naturally.

The Gambling Songs have been sung by Mack Harrell, George London, Thomas Stewart, Leonard Warren and Thomas Hampson. They have been sung in French, Italian and German and even Mandarin Chinese. They are still universally loved and part of the repertoire of many fine American Baritones.

John Edward Niles
Silver Spring, MD
Winter, 2005



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