Photo: UK Special Collections

Inducted 2021

Born: April 28, 1892, Louisville, Kentucky
Died: March 1, 1980, Lexington, Kentucky

John Jacob Niles was an author, composer, singer, and collector of traditional ballads who had a major influence on the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Niles was born into a musical family. His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer. His mother, Lula Sarah Reisch, played organ and piano, was a church organist, and taught him musical shorthand and music theory.

At age 16, Niles composed “Go ‘Way From My Window,” which became one of his signature songs. It has been recorded by dozens of artists, from Marlene Dietrich and Harry Belafonte to Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt. Bob Dylan borrowed its title for the first line of his song, “It Ain’t Me Babe.”

To learn more, read this biography by Ron Pen.

After graduating from high school, Niles worked for the Burroughs adding machine company (1910-1917) in Appalachian Kentucky and collected folk songs on his travels. During World War I, Niles was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service, working primarily as a pilot ferrying aircraft to the front lines. After the war, he studied music in Paris and Cincinnati. He sang opera in Chicago and folksongs on New York radio programs.

Niles’ early musical interests focused on Appalachian ballads and African-American songs and spirituals. His first book, Singing Soldiers (1927) was a collection of Black soldiers’ songs from World War I.

From 1927-1934, Niles continued collecting Appalachian ballads as he accompanied photographer Doris Ulmann on her expeditions to photograph mountain people in Eastern Kentucky. His published ballad collections frequently included material he collected as well as composed, such as his famous Christmas song, “I Wonder As I Wander” and his new tune for the traditional Scottish/Appalachian ballad “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” He toured Europe and America with singer Marion Kerby in the 1930s and performed at the White House in 1938.

Niles appeared at the Newport Folk Festival during the 1950s. Later in his career, he composed classical art songs for solo voice and piano, as well as choral music. Niles became friends with the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee) and wrote a cycle of 22 art songs based on Merton’s poetry. Niles collaborated and performed frequently with singer Jacqueline Roberts and accompanists Janelle Dishman and Nancy Field during the last dozen years of his life. On stage, Niles sang in a quirky high voice and played dulcimers and lutes he made himself.

Niles married Rena Lipetz in 1936. They had two sons, Thomas Michael Tolliver and John Edward, and lived on Boot Hill Farm in Clark County. He was a wood carver and built many of the instruments he performed with, some of which are now on display at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music.

Selected Bibliography:

Singing Soldiers (1927)
One Man’s War: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille (With Bert Hall, 1929)
The Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (With Doug Moore and Wally Wallgren, 1929)
Seven Negro Exaltations (musical score, 1929)
Songs of the Hill Folk (1934)
Ten Christmas Carols from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Musical score, 1935)
Ballads, Carols, and Tragic Legends from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (1937)
The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles (1940)
The Anglo-American Ballad Study Book (1945)
The Shape Note Study Book (1950)
Folk Ballads and Folk Carols for Young Actors (With Helen Louise Smith, 1962)
Brick Dust and Buttermilk (Poetry, 1977)

Discography:

Early American Ballads (1938, RCA Victor 78 rpm record album)
Early American Carols & Folk Songs (1940, RCA Victor 78 rpm record album)
The Tradition Years: I Wonder as I Wander (1958, Tradition Records; 2006, Empire Musicwerks)
American Folk & Gambling Songs (1956, Camden Record LP)
John Jacob Niles Sings American Folk Songs (1956, RCA Camden LP)
John Jacob Niles 50th Anniversary Album (1956, RCA Camden LP)
An Evening With John Jacob Niles (1959, Tradition Records LP; 2002, Empire Musicwerks)
John Jacob Niles Sings Folk Songs (1964, Folkways Records LP)

John Jacob Niles from Appalshop, Inc. on Vimeo.

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