Born: April 28, 1892; Louisville, KY
Died: March 1, 1980; Lexington, KY
Few are the concert singers, fewer still the folk artists who have not performed the folk songs and art songs written, arranged and compiled by John Jacob Niles. During a career lasting until the time of his death at age 87, Niles was active as an advocate for folk music, a performer and an inspiration to others to preserve the folk traditions of America and the British Isles.
After living 12 years in Louisville, Niles moved with hisRead more musically gifted family to a farm in rural Jefferson County. His own interest in music led to his collecting folk material and composing new songs within that idiom; by age 25, Niles had written "Go 'Way from My Window," the first of many memorable songs that felt and sounded authentic.
Upon graduation from high school and a period of employment with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Niles enlisted in the United States Army Signal Corps. As the result of an airplane crash, Niles was discharged, now qualified for government financing that made possible studies at the Université de Lyon and the Schola Cantorum in Paris. In 1920, he returned to the U.S., enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and began to collate folk themes gathered from his childhood. During this period, he performed in opera in Chicago and sang folk songs for the Westinghouse Company Radio Network.
After moving to New York in 1925, Niles became a master of ceremonies at the Silver Slipper Club and published his first folk song collection. With contralto Marion Kerby, he toured to rave reviews, singing with his colleague African American music and traditional folk strains. With photographer Doris Ulmann, he explored areas of the southern Appalachian mountains, gathering still more native folk material.
Following a brief tenure as music director at the John C. Campbell School in Brasstown, NC, Niles returned to Kentucky, moving to Boot Hill Farm in Clark County. In 1938, he recorded the first of many song collections, having by then written such songs as "Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair" and "I Wonder as I Wander." By the 1950s, he had begun to compose art songs and works in expanded form. Read less