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From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
John Jacob Niles, ballad writer and collector, eldest son of John Thomas and Lula (Sarah) Niles, was born on April 28, 1892, in Louisville into a musical family. His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer, and his father had a local following as a folksinger and square dance caller. From his mother he learned music theory and the piano. Niles first sang publicly at the age of seven, and in 1907, at fifteen, he composed "go 'way From My Window." He was encouraged to continue his musical career by Henry Watterson , editor of the Louisville Courier-journal. He later studied music at the Universite de Lyon in France, the Schola Cantorum in Paris, and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
In 1909 Niles graduated from Du Pont Manual Training High School in Louisville and began work as a mechanic at Burroughs Machine Company. In 1917 he enlisted as a private in the aviation section of the Army Signal Corps and was a pilot in France during World War I. When a plane crash left him partially paralyzed, he was discharged in 1918. He moved to New York City and in 1921 became master of ceremonies at the Silver Slipper nightclub there. He teamed with contralto Marion Kerby, and they toured both Europe and the United States giving performances. Niles also sang briefly for the Chicago Lyric Opera Company. He was described as a flamboyant, charismatic performer, and his performances did much to make folk music popular and were often imitated. His last concert was at Swannanoa, North Carolina, in September 1978.
Although he preferred performing, Niles is best remembered as a collector and popularizer of folk music. At the age of fifteen he began to record in a notebook the music of the Ohio Valley region. During the periods 1909-17 and 1928-34, he gathered and recorded songs of eastern Kentucky and the southern Appalachian area, a pioneer in collecting the songs of the common people. Niles arranged or composed more than 1,000 ballads, folk songs, carols, and wartime songs. Among his best known works are "i Wonder As I Wander," "black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair," "jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head," "lamentation," "mary The Rose," and "the Hangman." In 1961 many of his songs were published in the Ballad Book Of John Jacob Niles. His friendship with Trappist monk Thomas Merton resulted in the publication of Niles's last major work in 1972, when he set twenty-two of Merton's poems to music. He lectured and performed extensively, particularly on college campuses.
Niles also carved wood, made furniture, invented, and gardened. He married Rena Lipetz in 1936; they had two sons, Thomas Michael Tolliver and John Edward. Niles died at his Boot Hill Farm near Lexington on March 1, 1980, and was buried at St. Hubert's Cemetery in Clark County.
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:
Pen, Ronald. The Biography and Works of John Jacob Niles. Lexington, Ky.: [s.n.], 1987. Print.
Theses 1987, Fine Arts Library
Farrell, David, Anne G. Campbell, Terry L. Birdwhistell, and Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. John Jacob Niles General Oral History Project. 1977.
Special Collections Research Center - Oral History Collection
Niles, John Jacob, and Thomas Merton. The Niles-Merton Songs : Opus 171 and 172. Champaign, IL: Mark Foster Music, 1981. Print.
M1621.N675 N5 1981, Special Collections Research Center