Louisville has long been a center for all kinds of music, and the city has been a place from where artists have come to entertain the whole world. And Kentucky is known the world over as the home of many folk, country and bluegrass performers. John Jacob Niles was an important figure in the world of bluegrass, laying the foundations for some of the most distinctive music to come out of the region.
Born in Louisville in 1892, Niles' first instructor was his mother, from whom he learned music theory. He began foraging his own path by collecting and writing down songs and music whilst still in his teens. This activity began his career, and his love of the music of the Appalachian region would go on to inform many facets of his later life.
Later, he would write down songs directly from oral sources, finding his informants as he traveled during his employment with the Burroughs Corporation in the east of Kentucky. After World War I, he studied music both in France and the United States, before settling into a life of singing, writing and recording songs, and spreading the stories he found, both of the songs and their singers.
Niles' early work contrasts with his later achievements. If one thinks about the songs he collected in the 1910s, these were subject to the usual changes and variations that the "folk process" makes, songs which had a social role emanating from everyday life. The oral sources he collected from may have been the "best" singers a local area had, but they were still songs from occupations, from front porches and back yards, from true-to-life settings. Niles was able to take some of the songs he heard and wrote down, and move their settings to the recording studio, and to the songbook. He went onto write, publish, and record his own songs, many of which had bases in the songs he had heard whilst out collecting.
Niles is perhaps best known for a song he wrote aged 16, "Go 'Way From My Window", which takes as its inspiration a song Niles heard from an African American farm worker. His Christmas song "I Wonder As I Wonder" started life as a fragment he heard in Murphy , North Carolina.
His work moved away from the immediate folk medium as he published more work for choir, including art songs for voice accompanied by piano. But whatever he wrote, and into whichever canon his songs would eventually be categorized, he was always informed and influenced by the traditional sources of the region he was born in and the rich seam of material he first collected would be something he would refer to throughout his life.
In addition to his singing, Niles was a luthier (someone who makes and/or repairs lutes and other stringed instruments) and collector of instruments. He created and fashioned Appalachian dulcimers, alongside non-musical items like doors, tables and chairs. In a similar way to the influence he took from the traditional songs he gathered, Niles put his own spin on the instruments he made, taking the original design and changing it, personalizing it, and making the new instruments very much his own.
Niles created at least eight of his own instruments  and used them in a very particular, minimal way, creating his own sound which he used to accompany himself whilst singing, even using them as a striking chord in otherwise unaccompanied songs. He blended his singing with his songs, making each one depend upon the other.
Niles' influence runs deep, and reflects the variety of forms and functions his work fulfilled. As well as being quoted by Dylan (in the first line of "It Ain't Me Babe"), "Go 'Way From My Window" was recorded and sung by Merlene Dietrich. Niles' songs were a part of the folk music revival of the '50s and '60s, joining the recorded output of such names as Joan Baez and Burl Ives.
And his legacy has continued, with the Center for American Music at UK taking his name. It exhibits instruments he made, as well as his archives and collection materials.
As we all know, Louisville's musical reputation stretches far and wide. John Nathan Niles is an important part of this rich history, a part whose influence goes further than many, in many different areas. I will explore other parts of the musical traditions of Louisville in upcoming articles.
Photo: Flickr/Institute193