John Jacob Niles

A major figure in the American Folk Music Revival movement in the mid-20th century, John Jacob Niles was a singer and composer who collected traditional ballads and songs.

Photo: John Jacob Niles, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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    Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Niles’ interest in folk music began when he was a teenager. He took a job with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in 1910 in eastern Kentucky, which peaked his interest in Appalachian musical traditions. He left his job in 1917 to enlist in World War I, and after being injured in a plane crash, the government helped fund his studies in Lyon and then Paris. He enrolled in the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1920, when he returned to the United States. During his studies in Cincinnati, Niles became more serious about collecting folk song. He also sang with the Lyric Opera as well as on Westinghouse radio.

    Niles’ collections, arrangements, and performances of American folk songs and ballads, especially those of the African American tradition and of the Appalachians, have influenced countless folk singers as well as concert singers and ethnomusicologists.

    –Christie Finn, Public Domain Sources

    Related Information



    I Wonder As I Wander: Carols & Lovesongs

    (John Jacob Niles)


    The Ballads of John Jacob Niles

    (John Jacob Niles)


    A Christmas Nativity

    (Katherine Kennicott Davis and John Jacob Niles)


    Songs My Mother Taught Me

    (Vittorio Giannini, Richard Hageman, John Jacob Niles, Oscar Rasbach, Charles Gilbert Spross and Randall Thompson)


    I Hear America Singing

    (Ernst Bacon, Jean Berger, Paul Bowles, Henry T. Burleigh, Stephen Foster, Ernest Gold, Charles Griffes, Richard Hageman, Sergius Kagen, Charles Martin Loeffler, Edward MacDowell, Charles Naginski, John Jacob Niles, Hermann Reutter, Frédéric Louis Ritter, Ned Rorem, William Grant Still, Hugo Weisgall and Tennessee Williams)


    View recording

    American Anthem: From Ragtime to Art Song

    (Samuel Barber, Lee Hoiby, Charles Ives, John Musto, John Jacob Niles, Ned Rorem, Aaron Copland and William Bolcom)


    American Songs (Jennifer Larmore)

    (Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, John Woods Duke, Jake Heggie, Lee Hoiby, Charles Ives, Charles Naginski and John Jacob Niles)


    The Essential Leontyne Price

    (Henry T. Burleigh and John Jacob Niles)


    The Listeners

    (Ernst Bacon, Theodore Chanler, Lee Hoiby, John Jacob Niles and Ned Rorem)


    An Old Song Re-Sung: American Concert Songs

    (Walter Damrosch, John Woods Duke, Stephen Foster, Vittorio Giannini, Charles Griffes, John Jacob Niles and Oley Speaks)



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