John Jacob Niles

Folk Inspiration:
John Jacob Niles on collecting, composing
and performing his classic folk songs.

John Jacob Niles Medley Listen to John Jacob Niles*


"As I look back across fifty years of public performances, I'm convinced that a concert singer who is not also a composer and a poet is at a definite disadvantage. Perhaps this point of view goes back to my early years: when I was a child growing up in Kentucky, we made what we needed. The daily life of my people at home was full of interesting snatches of music -- perhaps just a single couplet and four measures of melody -- none of which could be employed as it was in a concert performance, but much of which was usable in an extended and adapted form.

We made our own fun, we made our own music, we even made our own instruments. When I was quite small, my father bought me a three-string dulcimer. But when I was up in my teens and wanted a bigger and better dulcimer, my father told me to get busy and make one. I've been making my own dulcimers ever since.

The nature of my voice has had much to do with the material of my performances. In the lingo of the concert stage, I did not live in the lower registers. I soon discovered the electric effect of a male alto C-sharp, and this led me to compose a melodic line involving the highest notes in my range."
--John Jacob Niles


"THE HANGMAN" (version recorded 1960)

"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."
--John Jacob Niles

"I WONDER AS I WANDER" (version recorded 1958)

"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, cooking, 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."
--John Jacob Niles

"GO 'WAY FROM MY WINDOW" (version recorded 1958)

"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."

--John Jacob Niles

"BLACK IS THE COLOR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S HAIR" ( version recorded 1958)

"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."
--John Jacob Niles

"VENEZUELA" (medley version recorded 1960)

"I wrote 'Venezuela', words and music, in the harbor of Boulogne, France in 1918. It was written to amuse a group of English and American aviators who were fog-bound in the harbor. A group of Barbados sailors on a grain ship nearby had been singing something about a girl they had met in Venezuela, and this is all it took to spark my imagination."
--John Jacob Niles


"The Roving Gambler" is one of my early childhood recollections. It must have come into our family from the Ohio and Mississippi River steamboats. Both the text and the tune were made over from time to time, until now the song might be called an adaptation of a steamboat song. The text is based on the idea of a young woman's determination to marry the wrong man. And as the mother in the story is outwitted, the popularity of the song is again assured."
--John Jacob Niles

*Medley comprised of excerpts from The John Jacob Niles Collection, 1991. Used with permission.
Audio requires Microsoft Windows Media Player.

The following artists have recorded music by John Jacob Niles:
Joan Baez, Barbara Streisand, Jo Stafford, Burl Ives, Marlene Dietrich, Marion Kerby, Linda Ronstadt, Gladys Swarthout, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Peter Paul & Mary, William Parker, Maureen McGovern, Percy Faith, Kathleen Battle & Christopher Parkening, James Galway, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, The Clancy Brothers, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Russo, Joe Weed, Janet Seidel, Sandi Patti, Carla Lother, London Symphony Orchestra & Nashville Symphonic Strings, Yayu Khoe, Sally Jones, Melanie Conrad Lockett, Susanne Mentzer & Sharon Isbin, George Winston, John Raitt, Nathan Gunn, Steve Schuch & the Night Heron Consort, Arthur Fiedler & Friends, Placido Domingo, Ying Huang, Michael Bolton, Larry Dalton, John Darnall, Peggo & Paul, The Fendermen, Jennifer Larmore, and many others.

JJN Hands



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Updated 10/26/2015.