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John Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles

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John Jacob Niles was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 composer, singer, and collector of traditional ballads. Called the "Dean of American Balladeers", Niles was an important influence on the American folk music revival
American folk music revival
The American folk music revival was a phenomenon in the United States that began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, John Jacob...

 of the 1950s and 1960s, with Joan Baez
Joan Baez
Joan Chandos Baez is an American folk singer, songwriter, musician and a prominent activist in the fields of human rights, peace and environmental justice....

, Burl Ives
Burl Ives
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was an American actor, writer and folk music singer. As an actor, Ives's work included comedies, dramas, and voice work in theater, television, and motion pictures. Music critic John Rockwell said, "Ives's voice .....

, and Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary were an American folk-singing trio whose nearly 50-year career began with their rise to become a paradigm for 1960s folk music. The trio was composed of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers...

, among others, recording his songs.


Born in Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville is the largest city in the U.S. state of Kentucky, and the county seat of Jefferson County. Since 2003, the city's borders have been coterminous with those of the county because of a city-county merger. The city's population at the 2010 census was 741,096...

, Niles learned music theory from his mother, and began writing down folk music as a teenager. He became a serious student of Appalachia
Appalachia is a term used to describe a cultural region in the eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York state to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. While the Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in the U.S...

n folk music by transcribing traditional songs from oral sources while an itinerant employee of the Burroughs Corporation in eastern Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...

, from 1910 to 1917. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Corps
The United States Army Air Corps was a forerunner of the United States Air Force. Renamed from the Air Service on 2 July 1926, it was part of the United States Army and the predecessor of the United States Army Air Forces , established in 1941...

 during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, in which he was injured, he studied music in France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, first in Lyon
Lyon , is a city in east-central France in the Rhône-Alpes region, situated between Paris and Marseille. Lyon is located at from Paris, from Marseille, from Geneva, from Turin, and from Barcelona. The residents of the city are called Lyonnais....

, then in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 at the Schola Cantorum
Schola Cantorum
The Schola Cantorum de Paris is a private music school in Paris. It was founded in 1894 by Charles Bordes, Alexandre Guilmant and Vincent d'Indy as a counterbalance to the Paris Conservatoire's emphasis on opera...

, also meeting Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein was an American writer, poet and art collector who spent most of her life in France.-Early life:...

. Returning to the United States in 1920, he continued his studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music
Cincinnati Conservatory of Music
The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music was a conservatory, part of a girls' finishing school, founded in 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio. It merged with the College of Music of Cincinnati in 1955, forming the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which is now part of the University of Cincinnati.The...

. He sang opera in Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

 and folk songs on early radio. In 1925, he moved to New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 and held various jobs in the entertainment industry. In the 1930s, he toured Europe and the United States with contralto
Contralto is the deepest female classical singing voice, with the lowest tessitura, falling between tenor and mezzo-soprano. It typically ranges between the F below middle C to the second G above middle C , although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C or the second B above...

 Marion Kerby. He performed at the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

 in 1938, and on occasion at the Newport Folk Festival
Newport Folk Festival
The Newport Folk Festival is an American annual folk-oriented music festival in Newport, Rhode Island, which began in 1959 as a counterpart to the previously established Newport Jazz Festival...

 during the 1950s.

In the 1920s, Niles began publishing music. He made four extended trips into the southern Appalachians
Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains #Whether the stressed vowel is or ,#Whether the "ch" is pronounced as a fricative or an affricate , and#Whether the final vowel is the monophthong or the diphthong .), often called the Appalachians, are a system of mountains in eastern North America. The Appalachians...

 as an assistant to photographer Doris Ulmann
Doris Ulmann
Doris Ulmann was an American photographer, best known for her dignified portraits of the people of Appalachia, particularly craftsmen and musicians such as Jean Ritchie's family, made between 1928 and 1934.-Life and career:...

, again transcribing traditional songs from oral sources, including the ballads "Pretty Polly
Pretty Polly (ballad)
"Pretty Polly", "The Gosport Tragedy" or "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" is a traditional English-language folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America, among other places....

", "Barbara Allen", and "He's Goin' Away". On other occasions, he transcribed songs he heard sung by African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

s and by fellow soldiers in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...


Niles was also a noted songwriter. His songs, many of which are based on traditional sources, include "Venezuela," and the haunting Christmas song "I Wonder As I Wander
I Wonder As I Wander
"I Wonder as I Wander" is a Christmas carol written by John Jacob Niles. The carol has its origins in a song fragment collected on July 16, 1933 by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles....

." Henry Miller
Henry Miller
Henry Valentine Miller was an American novelist and painter. He was known for breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new sort of 'novel' that is a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism, one that is...

's Plexus includes a powerful tribute to Niles's recording of this song. Niles composed "Go 'Way From My Window" when he was a mere 16 years old, but did not perform it until 1930. Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer.Dietrich remained popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself, professionally and characteristically. In the Berlin of the 1920s, she acted on the stage and in silent films...

 recorded it and sang it on stage. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, musician, poet, film director and painter. He has been a major and profoundly influential figure in popular music and culture for five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s when he was an informal chronicler and a seemingly...

 quoted its first line in his song "It Ain't Me Babe
It Ain't Me Babe
"It Ain't Me Babe" is the title of a 1964 song by Bob Dylan, first included on his album Another Side of Bob Dylan. The song's opening line is allegedly influenced by musicologist/folk-singer John Jacob Niles' composition "Go 'Way From My Window." Niles is referred to by Dylan as an early...

." Later in life, Niles published compositions in a more classical style, including works for choir and art song
Art song
An art song is a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment. By extension, the term "art song" is used to refer to the genre of such songs....

s for voice and piano. The latter include his last work, a setting of poems by Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. was a 20th century Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion...


Starting in 1938, he recorded a number of his compositions and transcribed songs, performing the material in an intense, dramatic manner. He employed a trademark very high falsetto
Falsetto is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds, in whole or in part...

 to portray female characters, and often accompanied himself on an Appalachian dulcimer
Appalachian dulcimer
The Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. It is native to the Appalachian region of the United States...

, lute
Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes....

, or other plucked stringed instrument.

In 1936, he married Rena Lipetz. They settled on the Boot Hill farm in Clark County, Kentucky
Clark County, Kentucky
Clark County is a county located in the U.S. state of Kentucky. It was formed in 1793. The population was 35,613 in the 2010 Census. Its county seat is Winchester, Kentucky...

, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Niles died in Lexington, Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Lexington is the second-largest city in Kentucky and the 63rd largest in the US. Known as the "Thoroughbred City" and the "Horse Capital of the World", it is located in the heart of Kentucky's Bluegrass region...

 on March 1, 1980 at age 87. He is buried at the nearby St. Hubert's Episcopal Church. The John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky
University of Kentucky
The University of Kentucky, also known as UK, is a public co-educational university and is one of the state's two land-grant universities, located in Lexington, Kentucky...

 is named after him, and displays a number of traditional instruments he handcrafted.


  • "The Tradition Years: I Wonder as I Wander"(1958, Tradition Records; 2006, Empire Musicwerks)
  • "American Folk & Gambling Songs" (1956, Camden Record LP)
  • "An Evening With John Jacob Niles" (1959, Tradition Records LP; 2002, Empire Musicwerks)
  • "John Jacob Niles Sings Folk Songs" (1964, Folkways Records
    Folkways Records
    Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.-History:...

  • "The Asch Recordings, 1939 to 1945 - Vol. 2" (1967, Folkways Records)
  • "No Direction Home
    No Direction Home
    No Direction Home is a documentary film by Martin Scorsese that traces the life of Bob Dylan, and his impact on 20th century American popular music and culture. The film does not cover Dylan's entire career; it concentrates on the period between Dylan's arrival in New York in January 1961 and his...

    " (Bob Dylan documentary DVD) - contains a video clip of Go 'Way From My Window.
  • "Mister Lonely" Directed by Harmony Korine in 2008 - contains "The Maid Freed from the Gallows".

Books by Niles

  • 1929 One man's war; the story of the Lafayette Escadrille (with Bert Hall
    Bert Hall
    Bert Hall was a film director, actor, writer and military aviator. Hall was one of America's first combat aviators, who flew with the famed Lafayette Escadrille in France, before the U.S. entered World War I. He has been given the honorable title "Soldier of Fortune" due to his distinguished career...

  • 1929 Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (with Douglas Moore)
  • 1934 Songs of the Hill Folk
  • 1950 The Shape Note Study Book
  • 1961 The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles
  • 1968 Singing Soldiers
  • 1969 "The Black Dress"


  • 1929 Seven Negro exaltations
  • 1935 Ten Christmas carols from the Southern Appalachian Mountains
  • 1945 The Anglo-American ballad study book: containing eight ballads in current tradition in the United States of America

External links