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John Jacob Niles, Luthier

Research and documentation of the Niles "dulcimers," by Dwight Newton, organologist.

John Jacob NilesIntroduction

This is a staging area for a research project currently in progress (begun in May 2006) to document the musical instruments made and used by Kentucky native and balladeer John Jacob Niles. It's not clear at this time whether this website will encompass the entire research project, or whether it might pe published as an academic paper elsewhere. In any case the results will be provided to the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, which is the repository of the Niles Collection of papers, photographs, furnishings, and most of the Niles instruments. I thank Dr. Ron Pen of the Niles Center and Gail Kennedy of the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library for allowing me access to the collection and otherwise supporting my research.

I first came across Niles around 1967 in my suburban Chicago hometown library where I discovered a copy of his now famous Ballad Book. What intrigued me was the picture on the cover that shows Niles sitting on a rock wall (probably at his home at Boot Hill) with a large, lute-like instrument that he seemed not to know how to play as his left hand was above the neck, rather than below as with any normal fretted instrument held in this position.

I developed a curiosity about unusual instruments from an early age. I heard a recording of Jean Ritchie singing and playing "Shady Grove" on the dulcimer on an early 1960s folk sampler LP. The sound and concept stuck with me and around 1969 the first instruments I built myself were Appalachian dulcimers. So I already had an interest in the Child ballads and the music of this region. This early experience was formative as I became more and more interested in organology.

When I came to do graduate work in Musicology at the University of Kentucky, one of the first things I tried to do was to see Niles, who was scheduled to perform at the Kentucky Music Weekend in Louisville the summer of 1979. Unfortunately, he was ill and sent his daughter to perform in his stead. She had one of his lesser known instruments and sang a few songs I don't even remember now. Niles died the following March, so I never had the chance to see him live.

Shortly after Niles's death, I discovered that his papers and instruments had been given to the University of Kentucky. I made an abortive start at documenting the instruments at that time and only managed to take a few drawings of one of them, but I promised myself that I would finish the job eventually.

So here it is some twenty-five years later and it looks like I may actually accomplish something this time. It it facilitated by the fact that I am now working at UK and my office is just down the hall and across to the next building to the Niles Center.


John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer (no extant instruments are known); his mother, Lula Sarah Niles, taught him music theory.

Around age six his family moved to rural Jefferson County where he began collecting folk songs at a young age and composed his first song by 1907. Following graduation from DuPont Manual Training High School in Louisville and work with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, Niles enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and served as a reconnaissance pilot. Afterwards, Niles studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory and moved to Chicago where he sang with the Lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio. He received serious musical training also at the Université de Lyon and the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

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.

Between 1927 and 1934 he accompanied photographer Doris Ulmann on her rural explorations into the people of the Appalachian highlands, acting as driver and assistant. Niles appears in many of Ulmann's photos, especially those with dulcimer players and other musicians. Niles continued to collect music as they traveled.

After a stint as Music Director at the John C. Campbell School in Brasstown, North Carolina, Niles married Rena Lipetz in 1936 and returned to Kentucky, settling at Boot Hill Farm in rural Clark County, just east of Lexington. Here he launched his recording career with the compilations Early American Ballads (1938) and Early American Carols and Folksongs (1940) for RCA. 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.

The Instruments

Niles called his instruments "dulcimers." He certainly had a lot of experience with the authentic Appalachian instrument by this name, but he took the concept in a fairly radical direction. As he did with the old songs he had collected, he took the essential idea of a dulcimer and turned it into an icon. I believe Niles thought of himself as a balladeer in the bardic tradition of Scots-English poetry. Certainly his repertoire has its roots quite consciously in the British Isles. His vocal style is rhythmically free and declamatory, with great emotional expression, especially as he employs his stratospheric falsetto. The instruments were used in a minimalist way, strumming the strings in a simple down- down-down-down... stroke, or in some cases in a single rolled stroke at certain moments for emphasis in an otherwise a cappella performance.

Niles performed with at least eight instruments that he built himself. This research project focuses on these instruments as objects, but in truth, they really cannot be separated from Niles the balladeer. The reality is that these objects are not particularly good musical instruments -- their ranges are quite limited, thay have relatively poor volume considering their size, and they are all clearly the work of a folk artist, not a luthier. But their musical function was secondary to their function as theatrical props. He rarely played melodic tunes on his large dulcimers. In all cases the real star of the show was Niles himself -- his voice and his expression.

Fortunately, Niles's experience as a photographer and his pentient for self promotion provides a wealth of photographic material from which to draw. The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, 1892-1980 at the University of Kentucky includes portraits by Doris Ulmann, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Eugene Meatyard and other notable photographers, as well as numerous self-portraits. What is clear from the photo archives is that Niles's performance practice on the instruments varied wildly according to the tune he was singing or the performance venue itself. He often embraced an instrument as we would a dying lover in a ballad lyric, sometimes strumming a note or two, sometimes not. Other times the same instrument could be played on the lap like a traditional dulcimer, but it might then creep up to a more vertical, guitarlike position (though with the left hand still above the fingerboard). At times, especially in later years, he would play with an instrument sitting on a table before him in dulcimer position.

Here are the Niles instruments I have found. All but instruments D and E are now in the collection of the Niles Center at the University of Kentucky. Instrument D was apparently destroyed at some point. I last saw instrument E in the possession of Niles's daughter at the concert in 1979. It's possible that she still has it.

The traditional hourglass shaped dulcimer with heart-shapes soundholes is not by niles, but was made to his specifications. It's a bit larger and deeper than most common dulcimers.


D D D (+G) D E E



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Updated 12/14/2006