John Jacob Niles - Biography

By J Poet


John Jacob Niles - Dean of American Balladeers - was a folksinger, folklorist and luthier who made the lutes and dulcimers he used when performing. With the exception of John and Alan Lomax, he was the most important collector of folk songs between 1900 and the mid 60s. He was a dramatic singer with a striking high falsetto and a tireless performer; although classically trained he loved with what John Fahey called primitive American music, what is called roots music today, and collected folk songs his whole life. He composed and/or adapted many songs that most people think are traditional including “Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair”, “I Wonder As I Wander”, “Go 'Way From My Window” which Dylan borrowed for “Don’t Think Twice” and “The Hangman”. He made dozens of influential albums and influenced Dylan, Joan Baez, Burl Ives, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger and many others who contributed to the folk revival of the 60s. He wrote many important folk music collections and kept performing almost until his death in 1980.


John Jacob Niles was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1892. His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer, his father a square dance caller and singer of folk songs, his mother played organ and piano in church and taught him music theory. He started singing as a child and won an amateur contest singing “Barbary Ellen” when he was 15. He was already collecting folk songs and wrote “Go 'Way From My Window”, based on a song he heard an African American workman named Oberall Jacket, when he was 16.


After high school he worked for the Burroughs adding machine company and while traveling around the South, he began collecting folk songs in hand written notebooks. In 1917 he joined the Army and continued collecting songs from his comrades in arms. He was honorably discharged and studied music at the Universite de Lyon and at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein. Back in the US he attended Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, sang with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and got a program singing folk songs on the Westinghouse radio network.


He moved to New York City and published Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting, and sang professionally on stage and in nightclubs. From 1927-34 he was the chauffeur/assistant to photographer Doris Ulmann on her trips to the southern Appalachians. He collected hundreds of songs in those years and published eight more books of folksongs including Songs My Mother Never Taught Me. He toured with the singer Marion Kerby in the late 30s, singing folk songs to rave reviews.


He became music director at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina in 1936 and started touring, singing folk songs accompanying himself on lute and dulcimer. His performances were known for their dramatic intensity. In 1938 he sang for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family at the White House.


His first 78-RPM album was Early American Ballads (1938 RCA), followed by Street Cries (1938 RCA, 1956 RCA), Early American Carols and Folksongs (1940 RCA), and American Folk Lore Vol. 3 (1941 RCA). His first classical work, Lamentation, a Biblical Oratorio, scored for chorus and mixed voices, was published in 1952. He started his own label Boone-Tolliver Records in 1953 for a series of 10” LPs including American Folk Love Songs to Dulcimer Accompaniment (1953 Boone-Tolliver), Ballads Vol. One (1953 Boone-Tolliver). When LPs became the medium of choice he cut John Jacob Niles Sings American Folk Songs (1955 RCA Camden), John Jacob Niles 50th Anniversary (1956 RCA Camden), I Wonder As I Wander / Carols and Love Songs (1957 Tradition), An Evening With John Jacob Niles (1959 Tradition), and The Ballads of John Jacob Niles (1960 Tradition) a two LP set that was the “soundtrack” of his book The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, which is still in print.


John Jacob Niles Sings Folk Songs (1964 Folkways) collected songs Nile cut for Moses Asch in the 50s and John Jacob Niles: Folk Balladeer (1965 RCA) collected songs from his RCA albums and The Best of John Jacob Niles (1967 Tradition) was a compilation of his Tradition sides. His last published work was Niles-Merton Songs written between 1967 and 1972, poems of the poet Thomas Merton set to music by Niles. He continued collecting, performing and recording until his death in 1980, although many of his albums are out of print. My Precarious Life in the Public Domain (2006 Rev Ola UK) gives a good overview of his eerie falsetto singing. 

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