Gambling Songs of John Jacob Niles
and reminiscences by John Edward Niles
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
ILLEGAL MANUFACTURE, SALE AND DISTRIBUTION OF MULCHOUS, VENOUS
AND SPIRITOUS LIQUORS WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF THE GOVERNMENT STAMP.
(Kentucky State Constitution, 1892)
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:
get your daddy to get my boy out of jail and I will sing for you.
And if I don't, I won't."
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:
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
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).
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
Silver Spring, MD
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