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Portrait of John Jacob NilesJohn Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 28, 1892. He began collecting folk songs at a young age and composed his first song by 1907. Although he specialized in folk music, he was trained at the Cincinnati Conservatory, sang with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and studied in France. He began publishing his music collections in 1925. Between 1927 and 1934 he accompanied Doris Ulmann on her rural expeditions, acting as chauffeur and factotum. Niles and his Appalachian dulcimer appear in many photos with Ulmann's rural sitters, and he continued to collect music as they traveled. A transcription of Niles' remembrance of Ulmann is available.

He is known as a collector, composer, and performer. Among his better known folk compositions are "I Wonder As I Wander" and "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," but he also composed a cycle based on the poetry of Thomas Merton. After Ulmann's death, Niles worked at the John C. Campbell School in Brasstown, North Carolina, site of many Ulmann photographs. John Jacob Niles died March 1, 1980.

More information about Niles is available through The John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky. The Center has republished the 1961 Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, which includes many of the songs he collected on the Ulmann trips.  Some recordings are available through

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), musician, folklorist, and Ulmann's field assistant. PH038-48-5928.