A photo of Niles in the sleevenotes – at home, seemingly in T-shirt and undercrackers, testing some homemade concoction with a smile at the kitchen table – is so at odds with our image of the man that it might as well be a hoax. We’re more used to seeing him with his iconic dulcimer, dressed to the nines, offering pithy reminders that “the grave will consume you and turn you to dust”. Yet the songs here, exhumed for the first time since their 1952 recording, were captured just feet away from that kitchen. Niles, having become something of an international folk star, headlining Carnegie Hall and signing to RCA-Victor – future home of Elvis Presley – became one of the first recording artists in history to launch his own independent record label. The Boone-Tolliver Recordings – just two EPs, American Folk Love Songs and Ballads By Niles – were made in his front room.
Really, it’s the perfect setting for Niles’ music; his falsetto voice cuts like the wind and howls like a banshee, given extra urgency by the intimacy of his surroundings. Niles whips through Mattie Groves, inhabiting its narrative voices like a terrified Sybil. It took him 15 years to write a new tune for Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair, yet the pain of artistic birth seems nothing compared to the yearning he conveys with his performance.