Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John Jacob Niles, March 15, 1978

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Early memories in autobiography

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Partial Transcript: The following is an unrehearsed interview with Mr. John Jacob Niles for the Kentucky Literature Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Niles mentions his autobiography and recites a poem he wrote. He talks about performing as a teenager.

Keywords: Dulcimers; Poems; Writers; Youth

Subjects: Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980; Poetry.

00:04:06 - Early performances

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Partial Transcript: Do you recall when you first, uh, stepped into the limelight?

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about when he first began performing and rehearsing. He discusses his struggle to support his family. He talks about tutoring his father’s employees’ while in high school. Niles discusses his rehearsal methods.

Keywords: Concerts; Finances; Music; Performances; Practice; Preparation; Rehearsals; Teaching

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:11:58 - Niles is asked to give an unexpected performance in New Albany, Indiana

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Partial Transcript: In this performance for example, here, over in Indiana. I wen--I went over to Indiana one Saturday. I got off--I didn't work that day.

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about going to a performance in Indiana. Because the performers were all drunk, he was asked to play. He talks about what he learned from this experience.

Keywords: Concerts; Indiana; New Albany (Ind.); Performances; Pianist

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:18:51 - Backstage at the performance in New Albany, Indiana

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Partial Transcript: A girl comes--four girls, little girls. "My name is Mary Keats," up spoke the tallest of the four. Sparkling bl--brown eyes, and as far as my fifteen-year-old judgment could tell, beautiful beyond compare.

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about meeting a girl who was a descendant of John Keats. He talks about what happened backstage that led to his agreeing to perform.

Keywords: Backstage; Indiana Blossoms; Instruments; John Keats; Musicians; Performers

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:27:25 - The performance in New Albany, Indiana

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Partial Transcript: Well, tell me, what did you do out there on the stage that night?

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about his performance, and his performing with a barbershop quartet. He discusses playing accompaniment during the performance and other musicians who performed.

Keywords: Improvisation; Musicians; Performances; Pianists; Singing; Stages; Trumpets

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:35:36 - Musical influences

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Partial Transcript: You see, the one thing I had in my advantage, to my advantage, my mother had already indoctrinated me in the way of the realities of art.

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about his mother's influence on his musical tastes. He talks about other influences on his music, including a man employed by his father.

Keywords: "Go 'Way from My Window"; Genres; Inspirations; Lyrics; Mothers; Music; Performers; Theodore Thomas Orchestra

Subjects: Influences; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:42:19 - Niles' singing voice

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Partial Transcript: I'm interested in your voice, itself. Uh, s-s-some reviewers I've read describe, insist that it's falsetto, some insist it's not a falsetto. How do you describe it?

Segment Synopsis: Niles discusses his singing voice and his efforts to stay true to himself. He talks about the "story" that is told through his performances. Niles relates what he learned from Adelina Patti.

Keywords: Adelina Patti; Alto; Barb'ry Ellen; Barbara Allen; Performances; Singing; Vocal Ranges

Subjects: Influences; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:51:04 - Marion Kerby

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Partial Transcript: What did you, uh, perhaps learn from Marion Kerby, touring with her?

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about touring with Marion Kerby and describes her personality. He discusses singing with Kerby.

Keywords: "Amazing Grace" (Hymn); Actors; Singing

Subjects: Kerby, Marion; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:54:59 - Performing solo

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Partial Transcript: W-w-was that the, the, the most touring you'd done? I mean other than--

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about when he began touring by himself and what instruments he played. He talks about where he went to perform and tells a story about a performance without any air conditioning. Niles discusses reviews he received.

Keywords: Bill Mootz; Critics; Dulcimer; Louisville (Ky.); Performances; Reviews; Singing; Tours

Subjects: Concerts tours; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

00:59:50 - Audiences / notable performances

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Partial Transcript: Well now, you, uh, I asked you what made that a good performance. A great performance. And the first thing you said was the audience.

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about his father advising him to connect with the audience. He talks about visualizing his lyrics. Niles describes an incident where an audience member would not stop talking. Niles talks about not allowing photography during performances. He talks about other performances where audiences were not interested in his performance. Niles talks about his aversion to the Hippie movement.

Keywords: Audiences; Fathers; Hippies; Manhattan (Kan.); New York University; Performances; Photographs; Practice; Rehearsals; Training; Yoga

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

01:15:41 - Performance attire / Italian funerals

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Partial Transcript: You know, speaking of New York performances, I've, I've read a report, I can't remember where I read it, but, uh, the reporter was saying--I read two separate reports.

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about the clothing he wore to performances. He talks about being given formal attire for performances. Niles describes singing at Italian funerals when he lived in New York City and what he learned from the experience.

Keywords: Clothing; Costumes; Formal; Informal; Singing

Subjects: Concerts; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980

01:19:32 - Performances abroad / retirement

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Partial Transcript: Speaking of, uh, foreign communities in America, you've also toured abroad. Do any of those performances stand out in your mind?

Segment Synopsis: Niles talks about performing in Amsterdam and what he was paid. He describes his traveling and earning his passage on a ship. Niles talks about his desire to stop performing. The interview is concluded.

Keywords: Enrico Caruso; Europe; London; Performances

Subjects: Concerts tours; Musical performance; Niles, John Jacob, 1892-1980