Collections in the Niles Center
John Jacob Niles Papers
John Jacob Niles was born in Louisville, Kentucky April 28, 1892. By 1907, Niles composed his first song,Go ‘Way from My Window, based on a line of song collected from an African American farm worker. Upon graduation from DuPont Manual Training High School and work with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Niles enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and served as a reconnaissance pilot. The war enabled him to continue collecting folk song, resulting in the publication of two books, Singing Soldiers (1927) andSongs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929). Returning to the United States Niles studied at Cincinnati Conservatory and moved to Chicago where he sang with the Lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio.
In 1925 Niles moved to New York and published his first music collections, Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting (1925) and Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs (1928). Niles also initiated an innovative performance career, which featured traditional mountain and African American material in concert with contralto Marion Kerby. At the same time, Niles worked with photographer Doris Ulmann and accompanied her on four trips into the Southern Appalachian Mountains, which allowed him to continue the ballad collecting that eventually culminated in The Ballad Book (1961).
In 1936, after a brief tenure as Music Director at the John C. Campbell School in Brasstown, NC, Niles married Rena Lipetz and moved back to Kentucky, settling at Boot Hill Farm in rural Clark County. Here he launched his recording career with the compilations Early American Ballads (1938) and Early American Carols and Folksongs (1940) for RCA Victor’s “Red Seal” label. By this time he had composed the songs I Wonder As I Wander,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head. In the 1950s he turned his attention to art song and extended concert works, such as the oratorioLamentation (1951) and the remarkable Niles-Merton Songs (1967-1970) based on the poetry of Thomas Merton.
The Niles Collection documents this career through 65.7 cubic feet of correspondence, diaries, musical and literary manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings, and other materials written or collected by John Jacob Niles. Niles’s compositional output is manifest in thirteen cubic feet of manuscript and published versions of Niles choral works, instrumental pieces, orchestral oratorios, song arrangements, and other musical compositions. Niles’s collecting activity is represented by diaries and field notebooks that Niles used to record folk songs, his World War I scrapbooks, autobiographical notes and drafts, original plays, radio scripts, and manuscripts of his published books. There are approximately 164 tapes of Niles performances as well as film and videotapes of three documentaries about his career. There are also material artifacts, including four doors, a table, chairs and dulcimers that were fashioned by Niles.
This extensive collection provides a unique portrait of life in the Ohio Valley and Upland South at a time when industrialization was eradicating the self-subsistence agricultural lifestyle that had developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Niles’s collecting, performance, and, publication documented much of the secular folksong of the people who were heirs to the Cohee and Tuckyhoe traditions mingling in the frontier. In Niles’s transcriptions of folksong and descriptions of the people from whom he collected the music, the voice of history is allowed to echo into the present. The stories of the ballads, carols, and lyric folksongs that Niles preserved encode the narrative of America’s adaptation of old world ideas that are transformed by American ideals.
Glenn C. Wilcox Collection
The Glen C. Wilcox Collection comprises an eight-thousand-volume collection of American, British, and Scottish sacred tunebooks and hymnals spanning four centuries from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. As one of the largest extant collections of its kind, the Wilcox Collection documents the development of American sacred music and sacred hymnody from the earliest Colonial period through the beginnings of the Southern Gospel movement. Divided into two main types of publications, the tunebook (a collection of musical compositions) and the hymnal (a words-only collection of sacred poetry), this collection includes imprints from all of the major areas of the Eastern Seaboard, specializing particularly in the New England and Middle Atlantic areas with a few Tuckeyho southern publications, as well as a broad range of Western and Midwestern imprints from the early nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Significant holdings within the collection include Cotton Mather’s Psalterium Americanum (1718), the first musical publication from Pennsylvania, an anonymous 1696 German Gesangbuch designed to accompany the psalms, a rare 1737 Scottish edition of the “Bay” Psalm Book, the first English metrical psalter produced in the New World, John Newton’s Olney Hymns (1779), which contains the first printing of the text of “Amazing Grace,” William Walker’s Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835), and many other works central to understanding the religious and musical history of the United States. Taken together, this collection encompasses denominational trends and aesthetic taste as it evolved throughout the history of the United States with publications intended for Congregationalists, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Universalists, Shakers, and Pentecostals offering an unparalleled vista of the diverse American religious landscape.
John L. Lair Research Library Collection
While John Lair is remembered best as the pioneering force behind the National Barn Dance country music radio (WLS, Chicago) and founder of a Grand Old Opry-style radio program in Renfro Valley, Kentucky, he was also a dedicated scholar and writer whose research informed his musical broadcasts. Recently, the Niles Center was fortunate to acquire Lair’s extensive personal research collection. Reflective of the multifarious musical practices of the Upland South and Midwest throughout its history, Lair’s collection encompasses bound and unbound sheet music of piano, guitar, and vocal compositions from Great Britain and the United States (1750-1940), square dance instruction manuals (1880-1940), dance orchestra and silent film orchestral scores and part books (1840-1930), secular choral song books relating to temperance, political, and Masonic subject matter (1795-1920), and sacred tunebooks and hymnals (1780-1940). Though representing a much broader range of musical subject matter, Lair’s collection emphasizes the gradual opening of the West and what types of musical artifacts influenced middle-class America in its development as a culture of consumption.
In the field of sheet music, Lair collected bound books of sheet music that belonged to various women for use in domestic performance both for private study and public gatherings in the home. Reflecting the aesthetic taste of American women, the collections also feature those compositions published in regional centers as well as the type of imported music brought to each region. In this regard, the collection emphasizes regional musical taste in London and Dublin (1750-1800), Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland (1795-1830), Louisville, Kentucky (1820-1860), Saint Louis (1840-1870), New Orleans (1845-1870), Milwaukee (1850-1880), Dearborn Michigan (1860-1880), with miscellaneous publications including the earliest music published in Seattle, Washington and Birmingham, Alabama. Other items featured in the collection include the only known copy of the Scottish Musical Museum published by John Aitken in Philadelphia (1797), an unidentified Mormon hymnal ca. 1840, and a previously unknown composition, A Favorite Sonata by Robert Leaumont of Charleston, South Carolina ca. 1810, the earliest extant sonata composed and published in the South.
The Lair Collection is an ideal complement to the Wilcox Collection. While they cover the same general span of American history from the late eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, the Lair Collection is focused on secular material while the Wilcox Collection represents more emphasis on sacred musical expression.
Charles F. Faber Recorded Sound Collection
The Faber Collection consists of approximately two thousand vintage hillbilly and country music recordings issued between 1920 and 1950. In many ways, this archive is the audible transition from the earlier books and manuscripts of the Wilcox, Lair, and Niles Collections. As regional folk expression broadened into mass-media disseminated popular music, the narrative stories of the ballads evolved into new personal stories that addressed concerns of a people moving from an agricultural to an urban society. The Jeffersonian ideal of the noble farmer on his estate gave way to the reality of coal and mill towns where the voice of individual freedom was subsumed by the cacophony of industrial order. An agrarian interpretation would point to an emerging understanding of the world in terms of a machine, with the music providing a distress cry on behalf of the individual pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Folksinger Michael Johnathon conceived of a live radio program featuring two acts followed by an integrated conversation and informal “jam.” From its origins before an audience of twenty in 1998 to weekly sold-out audiences of 400 in Lexington’s Kentucky Theater in 2006, the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour is now broadcast to over 400 stations in thirty-six countries. Guided by its maxim, “You don’t have to be famous, you just have to be good,” the radio show has featured a remarkable array of grass roots American vernacular expression, including performers, such as Jean Ritchie, Odetta, Ralph Stanley, Nickel Creek, John Hammond, Mike Seeger, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Riders in the Sky, Roger McGuinn, and many others less famous, but just as good.
Woodsongs has been archived since its early days, first on DAT, later on CD and DVD formats and more recent shows are currently available on the internet. Recently, the Niles Center acquired the Woodsongs Archives, consisting of approximately 110 boxes containing digital sound materials, posters, scripts, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and photographs and video images.
This collection provides an interesting technological challenge in preservation and access since much of its content is already in digital form. This is also a “living collection.” Because the show continues to produce and air weekly broadcasts, the Niles Center and the Special Collections and Archives Division of the University of Kentucky Library are committed to insuring that additional shows continue to be added to the archive.
In content, the Woodsongs Archhives complements the other Niles Center collections by focusing attention on Kentucky’s role as a crucible for musical expression tied to traditional vernacular culture. The inherited legacy of independence and integration that defined social construction in the Kentucky experience, continues to resonate as the contemporary voice of musicians presented on the Woodsongs show.
Temple Adath Israel Choral Music Collection
On November 1, 1903, at 7:30 P.M., a handful of Jewish Lexington pioneers gathered in the Phoenix Lodge Room on West Short Street to discuss the possibilities of organizing a Temple “...for the purpose of religious services, a Sabbath school and other matters pertaining to the moral elevation among the Jewish people of Lexington and Central Kentucky.”
One hundred years later in January of 2003, through the efforts of Rabbi Jonathan Adland and congregation members Ms. Anita Baker and Ms. Marilyn Lieber, Temple Adath Israel generously donated a collection of their music to the John Jacob Niles Center of the University of Kentucky in order to celebrate the history and preserve the legacy of Adath Israel. The collection of service music and hymnals spanning the years 1896-1974 represents a focused glimpse of American Jewish Reform worship at a single temple. While the contents of the collection have been inventoried, they have not yet been catalogued, but they are available for research.
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