The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

John Jacob Niles
(1892-1980)

Composer, collector, and balladeer John Jacob Niles, was born in Louisville, Kentucky April 28, 1892. Niles came from a musical family. His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer; his mother, Lula Sarah Niles, taught him music theory. In 1904, Niles's family moved to a farm in rural Jefferson County where John Jacob began collecting folk music. By 1907, Niles composed his first song, "Go 'Way from My Window," based on a line of song collected from an African American farm worker.

Concerning "Go 'Way From My Window," John Jacob Niles wrote:

"In 1908 my father had in his employ a Negro ditch-digger known as Objerall Jacket. As he dug, he sang, "Go way from my window, go way from my door" -- just those words, over and over again, on two notes. Working beside Jacket all day (I was sixteen at the time), I decided that something had to be done. The results were a four-verse song dedicated to a blue-eyes, blond girl, who didn't think much of my efforts. The song lay fallow from 1908 to 1929, when I arranged it and transposed to a higher key. "Go 'way from My Window" was was first sung successfully in Berlin, Germany, in 1930. It has gone a long way since."

Upon graduation from DuPont Manual Training High School and work with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Niles enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and served as a reconnaissance pilot. The war enabled him to continue collecting folk songs, resulting in the publication of two books, Singing Soldiers (1927) and Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929). Returning to the United States, Niles studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory and moved to Chicago where he sang with the Lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio.

In 1925 Niles moved to New York, became master of ceremonies at the Silver Slipper nightclub, and published his first music collections, Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting (1925) and Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs (1928). Niles also initiated an innovative performance career which featured traditional mountain and African American material in concert with contralto Marion Kerby, with whom he toured widely in the United States and Europe as a folksinger.. At the same time, Niles worked with photographer Doris Ulmann and accompanied her on four trips into the southern Appalachian Mountains which allowed him to continue the ballad collecting that eventually culminated in The Ballad Book (1961). He made his own lutes and Appalachian dulcimers.

In 1936, after a brief tenure as Music Director at the John C. Campbell School in Brasstown, North Carolina, Niles married Rena Lipetz and moved back to Kentucky, settling at Boot Hill Farm in rural Clark County. Here he launched his recording career with the compilations Early American Ballads (1938) and Early American Carols and Folksongs (1940) for RCA Victor's "Red Seal" label. By this time he had composed the songs "I Wonder As I Wander," "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," and "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head." In the 1950s he turned his attention to art song and extended concert works, such as the oratorio Lamentation (1951) and the remarkable Niles-Merton Songs (1967-70) based on the poetry of Thomas Merton.

Niles wrote these notes about "I Wonder As I Wander," "The Hangman," and "'Black is The Color of My True Love's Hair'

"'Black is The Color of My True Love's Hair' as sung here was composed between 1916 and 1921. I had come home from eastern Kentucky, singing this song to an entirely different tune--a tune not unlike the public-domain material employed even today. My father liked the lyrics, but thought the tune was downright terrible. So I wrote myself a new tune, ending it in a nice modal manner. My composition has since been "discovered" by many an aspiring folk-singer".

"I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina,and the time was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out--a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of "I Wonder As I Wander". At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material--and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, "I Wonder As I Wander" came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung."

"In my lifetime I have sung more performances of "The Hangman" than any other ballad, with the possible exception of "Barb'ry Ellen". As a child I knew a few verses, but it was Ella Wilson of Texana, North Carolina, who in her 89th year, sang me the version presented herewith." [Niles did not indicate when he captured this song.]

His ballad collections frequently included material that he composed, such as "I Wonder As I Wander" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," or arranged, as well as ballads transcribed directly from oral sources. His published works include Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929; with Douglas Moore), Songs of the Hill Folk (1934), The Shape Note Study Book (1950), and The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles (1961).

His last work (1972) was the Niles-Merton song cycles, settings of poems of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Niles maintained an active performance, composition, and recording career until his death March 1, 1980 at Boothill Farm, near Lexington, Ky.. He is buried next to his wife, Rena, in the graveyard of St. Hubert's Episcopal Church in Clark County, Kentucky.

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