John Jacob Niles

Historical marker #2549 commemorates the life of John Jacob Niles and his family at Boot Hill Farm on Boone Creek along the Fayette and Clark County line.

John Jacob Niles was born into a musical family in Louisville in 1892. There were many musicians in the Niles family and young Niles grew about around folksinging and playing. His mother Lula (Sarah) Niles taught him how to play piano and basic music theory. A seeming prodigy, John Jacob was performing publically before he was 8 and wrote his future hit "Go 'Way from My Window" at the tender age of 15. He graduated from high school at Du Pont Manual and worked as a mechanic before World War I broke out. Niles enlisted in the Army Signal Corp and eventually served as a pilot in France. He was injured in a plane crash and discharged in 1918 afterwhich his musical career began to take off.

A riviting performer, Niles also earned fame as a collector, perserver and popularizer of regional folk music. He gathered songs and musical traditions particularly from the southern Appalachian region. Ultimately, Niles gathered or composed more than 1,000 songs including such well known works as "The Hangman," "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," and "I Wonder as I Wander." Niles influenced later musicans such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary who helped define modern American music. 

A sizable crowd gathered to unveil and dedicate the marker, including local officials, members of the Niles family and scholars who have studied John Jacob Niles' long career and longer legacy. The ceremony started by the marker, which is located by the road in front of the Boot Hill Farm house built by Niles and family. After brief remarks from the marker's sponsor, descendants of John Jacob offically unveiled the marker. The whole crowd then loaded up in their cars and drove up the hill the Saint Hubert's Episcopal Church where they got to walk through the beautiful front doors carved by Niles himself on their way to the reception.

The reception featured snacks and drinks, which the audience enjoyed as they listed to remarks from speakers including Deborah Garrison, President of the Southwest Clark County Neighborhood Association, Dr. Andrew Patrick, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Kentucky Historical Society, and Henry Branham, Clark County Judge Executive. They also heard from John Edward Niles, son of John Jacob, and John Niles, the grandson of John Jacob. The marker's sponsor, Dr. Ron Pen, Director Emeritus of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and author of I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, delivered a moving dedication address. Dr. Pen and guests also performed music by Niles and many in the audience visited the graves of John Jacob and Rena out in behind Saint Hubert's. 

The marker reads:

JOHN JACOB NILES
Composer, author, and ballad
singer John Jacob Niles (1892-
1980) built Boot Hill Farm here
in 1939. Niles composed the songs
“I Wonder as I Wander,” “Black
Is the Color of My True Love’s
Hair,” and “Go ‘Way from My
Window.” A WWI aviator, he
published the wartime
collections Songs My Mother Never
Taught Me and Singing Soldiers.

JOHN JACOB NILES
Niles was the first folk musician
featured at Carnegie Hall and
performed at the inaugural
Newport Folk Festival. His
publications and performances
with a dulcimer exerted a strong
influence on the American folk
revival. Niles, his wife Rena,
and their sons Thomas and John
Edward, lived at Boot Hill Farm.
Southwest Clark Neighborhood Assn.

The marker was dedicated on April 28, 2018, the 126th anniversary of John Jacob Niles' birth. 

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