Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen


Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.

Singing with John Jacob Niles gave Jacqueline Roberts an inside view of folksinger’s compositions

April 23, 2012

Thomas Merton, the author and Trappist monk, right, visited with John Jacob Niles, singer Jacqueline Roberts, right, and accompanist Janelle Dishman at Boot Hill Farm near Lexington in 1968 shortly before Merton's unexpected death. Niles set many of Merton's poems to music he wrote with Roberts voice in mind. Photo by Helm Roberts


He was a famous folk singer and ballad composer, hoping to make another mark in music before old age caught up with him. She was a singer and a restless young mother, yearning to use her musical talent and training for something more than directing a church children’s choir.

John Jacob Niles and Jacqueline Roberts met in 1967 and were close collaborators for the rest of his life. Their dozen years together defined the last chapter of his career and charted the course for hers.

“My career became the music of John Jacob Niles,” said Roberts, 78, who lives in Gratz Park and is an active vocal coach.

Niles was a major influence on the folk-music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Now his music is experiencing a revival of its own, with the 120th anniversary of his birth on April 28, 1892.

Jacqueline Roberts with her E dulcimer, a copy of one used by longtime music partner, balladeer John Jacob Niles. Photo by Tom Eblen

A record label in New Mexico just released recordings made in 1952 of Niles performing his songs in the high-pitched, theatrical voice that was his trademark. In Lexington, several well-known performers will appear in a tribute concert, A Celebration of John Jacob Niles, May 2 at the Kentucky Theatre.

Niles’ best-known songs — I Wonder As I WanderGo ‘Way From My Window and Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair — have become folk standards. But classical singers focus on the art songs he wrote in the years before his death in 1980 at age 87.

Many of those art songs — including 22 based on the poetry of Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton — were the product of Niles’ collaboration with Roberts and piano accompanists Janelle Pope Dishman and Nancie Field.

“These are some of the strongest songs of his life,” said Ron Pen, a University of Kentucky music professor and Niles biographer. “And they were written specifically with Jackie Roberts’ voice in mind.”

Roberts, a native of Russell in Greenup County, earned music degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Miami University in Ohio. After she and her husband, architect Helm Roberts, moved to Lexington from California in 1966, she got a job directing the children’s choir at Second Presbyterian Church. Professionally, she was bored stiff.

Roberts had met Niles at Christ Church Episcopal after she performed his song The Little Familyat an Easter service. Soon afterward, Roberts decided to give a recital at Second Presbyterian. On an impulse, she called Niles to ask what he would suggest she sing.

Niles invited her and Dishman out to his Boot Hill Farm off Athens-Boonesboro Road and made some suggestions. Then he asked them to try out one of his Merton songs to see how it sounded. “Apparently, he liked what he heard,” Roberts said.

On the day of Roberts’ recital, Niles and his wife, Rena, walked in and sat in the front row.

Roberts and Dishman started driving out to Boot Hill each Tuesday and Thursday. They would arrive at 10 a.m., work with Niles for two hours on his latest composition, then have a glass of wine and a sumptuous lunch prepared by the Nileses’ cook, Mary Tippie Mullins.

“For me, it was a gift from heaven,” Roberts said. “I had a 3-year-old, and I was just glad to have someplace to go twice a week.”

The young women helped Niles explore new facets of songwriting. Those sessions led to performances at parties the Nileses gave at Boot Hill for their eclectic group of friends. Then, Niles asked “the girls,” as he called them, to accompany him and his wife on concert tours all over the country, which Roberts did for a decade. In 1970, Field succeeded Dishman as the accompanist.

Jacqueline Roberts, left, Nancie Field and John Jacob Niles perform in concert at Transylvania University in 1975. Photo by Helm Roberts

Niles was a controversial character. The way he borrowed and blended folk ballads into his own compositions irritated some academics. Many people were put off by his big personality, quirky voice and dramatic performance style, which included playing large dulcimers that he would embrace on stage like a lover.

“He came off as an arrogant person, and I was told that my career would never go anywhere if I worked with him,” Roberts said. “Well, that was all I needed. I respected him. I didn’t care what the community thought of him.”

Roberts said the John Jacob Niles she knew was nothing like his public persona. He was patient and kind; an excellent musician and a well-organized composer. The greatest reward of their collaboration, she said, was being able to help shape songs literally as they were being written.

“It was like seeing something being born,” she said. “I saw him in all his moods. I saw him cry when he was touched by the music. I saw him proud when a composition was finished.”

One of their most special times came in 1968, when Thomas Merton left the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County and traveled to Boot Hill Farm to listen to them perform musical interpretations of his poetry. Although Merton’s 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was an international best-seller, Roberts had never heard of him.

The Catholic monk arrived wearing jeans, work shoes and a sweater. “I thought he would be in a long robe and a hat,” Roberts said.

Merton, she said, didn’t seem to know what to make of Niles. “I think he found him to be a funny old man,” she said. But he liked what Niles had done with his poetry. As Roberts sang, she saw tears in Merton’s eyes.

Merton made a second trip to Boot Hill that year. Roberts said she thinks there would have been many more visits had Merton not died in an accident soon afterward while attending an interfaith conference in Thailand.

Over the years, Roberts became close friends with “Johnnie” and Rena, a Russian émigré who supported her husband’s career as faithfully as Helm Roberts supported his wife’s. Despite a busy practice in architecture and city planning, and the pressures of helping raise two sons, Helm Roberts photographed and recorded many of her performances with Niles.

Helm Roberts, who died on his 80th birthday on Aug. 26, is best known for designing the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort — a giant sundial that points to the name of each fallen soldier on the anniversary of his death.

Pen, the biographer, said Jackie Roberts made a huge contribution to the last chapter of Niles’ career. Their collaboration “sparked his imagination,” he said. “It gave him the will to keep writing at a time when most people retire.”

Since Niles’ death, Roberts has been a successful musician and a valuable resource for singers and scholars. “She has an interpretive knowledge of these songs that is really special,” Pen said. “She is a very informed singer and a master teacher.”

Roberts is often sought out by singers who want to know more about Niles’ music and how to perform it.

“Occasionally, throughout history, a few composers have been able to collaborate with a performer in a special way, to have the luxury of trying out material and writing for a specific voice,” Pen said. “This was one of those relationships.”

A Celebration of John Jacob Niles

Who: Hope Koehler, The Reel World String Band, soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble, Tedrin Blair Lindsay and James Douglas.

When: 7:30 p.m., May 2.

Where: Kentucky Theatre.

Details: Tickets $20, $5 with student ID.

Call: (859) 685-1030 or Multigramproductions.com

Want to hear John Jacob Niles?

L.H. Dupli-cation, a New Mexico record label owned by Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, has just issuedThe Boone-Tolliver Recordings, 13 tracks of Niles performing his music at his Boot Hill Farm on Athens-Boonesboro Road. Niles first issued the records on his own Boot Hill label in 1952, and they have been out of print since. More information: Ahawkandahacksaw.net

Singer Jacqueline Roberts, left, accompanist Nancie Field (and before her, Janelle Dishman) made twice-weekly visits to John Jacob Niles' Boot Hill Farm near Lexington for two-hour work sessions. "The girls," as Niles called them, helped him as he composed. Photo by Helm Roberts.



Renovated downtown school ready to put on a show

February 15, 2011

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, a fixture in downtown Lexington for 98 years, is inviting the community to see its $12 million renovation and expansion.

The school will be a stop Friday night during Gallery Hop, with an exhibit of student art chosen from the region’s Catholic schools. Then, on Feb. 24, Sts. Peter and Paul will launch a monthly concert, “Series with the Saints,” in the school’s elegantly restored 250-seat theater.

The first concert in this series is special: a recital of songs written by the late Kentucky folk music legend John Jacob Niles in collaboration with Thomas Merton, the famous author and Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown until his death in 1968.

The recital, “Written in the Stars,” will feature mezzo-soprano Sherri Phelps and pianist Rachel Taylor, with special guest Jacqueline Roberts, who was Niles’ performance partner from 1967 until his death in 1980.

Using Merton’s poetry, Niles wrote 22 songs specifically for Roberts’ voice, seven of which are included in this recital. The show will feature photographs, audio and video recordings about Niles and Merton, with commentary from Roberts.

“In many ways, this is an evening to honor Jackie,” Phelps said. “She’s the primary source for the material, and she has been passing on the performance practices, teaching them to me.”

Both Phelps and Taylor have doctorates in music. Taylor teaches piano at Eastern Kentucky University. Phelps is an opera singer who has performed throughout this country and Europe. But this material, which blends Niles’ folk music with Merton’s poetry, has special appeal for them.

“When I was studying at Juilliard in New York, this was the only Kentuckian’s music I ever heard at the school,” said Phelps, a Morgantown native. “I felt a special need to champion this music.

“And Thomas Merton is so intimately connected with Kentucky’s Catholic heritage,” she said. “This is the only song cycle he ever collaborated on with a composer.”

This spring, the recital will begin a national tour with a performance at Mission San José in California.

Phelps said Sts. Peter and Paul’s restored W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Theatre will be the perfect place for the show’s premiere. It is a large but intimate space with great acoustics and lighting, and a new grand piano. It is a hidden gem on the second floor of the school that serves students from throughout Central Kentucky.

The original school was built in 1913, on West Short Street between historic St. Paul Catholic Church and the Lexington Opera House. In a major commitment to downtown, the school has been more than doubled in size, with a new classroom addition and gymnasium, said Jeanne Miller, a school parent who helped to organize the project.

So far, the school project has attracted 550 donors, including the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, which helped to restore the theater. Alltech donated science labs, and the Knights of Columbus helped pay for the gymnasium.

The 1913 building was carefully restored to make it modern, while retaining its original architectural beauty. Sts. Peter and Paul reopened in August with 490 students in grades one through eight at the renovated Short Street campus and younger children at a school beside St. Peter Catholic Church on Barr Street.

As with the new gymnasium, now used by many Lexington youth teams, Sts. Peter and Paul wants the renovated theater to be well used. Children from nearby Harrison Elementary School and residents of Ashland Terrace retirement home have been brought in to see school performances. The school also is partnering with Lexington Children’s Theatre, its neighbor across Short Street, on a summer theater camp.

“This was such a community space in the early 1900s,” Miller said. “The goal is to recreate that today, to make it not just an asset for the school but for the entire community.”

  • If You Go

    Gallery Hop at Sts. Peter and Paul

    What: Catholic Schools Invitational Art Show

    When: 5-8 p.m. Friday

    Where: 423 W. Short St.

    ‘Written in the Stars’

    What: Recital of John Jacob Niles/Thomas Merton songs by Sherri Phelps and Rachel Taylor

    When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24

    Where: Sts. Peter and Paul School, Little Theatre, 423 W. Short St.

    Admission: $8 adults, $5 students

    More information: Stspeterandpaulschool.org