John Jacob Niles

1892 - 1980

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

About

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
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