John Jacob Niles

Composer, collector, and balladeer John Jacob Niles, was born in Louisville, Kentucky April 28, 1892. Twelve years later, Niles's family moved to a farm in rural Jefferson County where John Jacob began collecting folk music. 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 U.S. Army Signal Corps and served as a reconnaissance pilot. The war enabled him to continue collecting folk songs, resulting in the publication of two books, Singing Soldiers (1927) and Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929). Returning to the United States, Niles studied at the 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, North Carolina, 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 oratorio Lamentation (1951) and the remarkable Niles-Merton Songs (1967-70) based on the poetry of Thomas Merton.

Niles maintained an active performance, composition, and recording career until his death March 1, 1980. He is buried next to his wife, Rena, in the graveyard of St. Hubert's Episcopal Church in Clark County, Kentucky.

The first comprehensive biography of Niles, I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, by Niles Center director Dr. Ron Pen, was published in 2010 by University Press of Kentucky.