Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
NILES, John Jacob
(b 28 April 1892, Louisville KY; d 1 May '80) Singer, songwriter, folklorist, multi- instrumentalist; played piano, lute, etc; preserved the trad. dulcimer and home-made folk instruments. He sang in a high tenor, befitting a man who collected songs in the mountains; like Richard Dyer-Bennett he kept the folk flame alive by presenting it formally rather than as hillbilly music. His father was a folksinger and square-dance caller; his mother played organ in church. He worked as a surveyor in the mountains, performed from c'10; served in WWI and was badly injured in a plane crash; worked as gardener, horse groom, chauffeur (for photographer Doris Ulmann), collecting songs the while; collaborated with Marion Kerby on touring folk music programmes. His published collections incl. Singing Soldiers '24, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me '27, One Man's War and Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs '29, Songs Of The Hill Folk '36, Ballads, Carols And Tragic Legends From The Southern Appalachian Mountains '37, The Anglo-American Study Book '45, Shape-Note Study Book '50, major compilation Ballad Book Of John Jacob Niles '61 (with songs arranged in groups as Francis James Child had collected the words). Folk Ballads For Young Actors and Folk Carols For Young Actors were published '62; music publishers G. Schirmer celebrated their bicentenary with The Songs Of John Jacob Niles. The Niles--Merton Song Cycles '72 were his settings of the poems of best-selling author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He made albums of 78s for Victor incl. American Ballads '39, Early American Carols And Folk Songs '40, American Folk Lore '41; he formed his own Boone- Tolliver label (American Folk Songs And Ballads), also recorded for Folkways (Folk Songs incl. 'I'm So Glad Trouble Doesn't Last Forever') and Tradition, incl. two-disc Ballads, I Wonder As I Wander '57 (he wrote music for title song), An Evening With John Jacob Niles '60. Longer works incl. Lamentations, an oratorio inspired by Hitler in '41 but not completed until '51; by then he also hated the similar tyranny of communism. He concertized well into his '80s, received five honorary degrees and lived long enough to see the rebirth of interest in folk music which he had done much to preserve.