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One hundred years after John Jacob Niles’ arrival in Lexington, University of Kentucky School of Music’s Tedrin Blair Lindsay will join renowned soprano Hope Koehler, soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble, the Reel World String Band and pianist James Douglass to celebrate the life and music of the “Dean of American Balladeers.” The concert, “A Celebration of John Jacob Niles,” will take the stage May 2, at the Kentucky Theatre.
This concert will feature Hope Koehler performing a number of Niles’ most famous songs. Pianist James Douglass, director of music and organist at St. James’ Church in New York City, will accompany her. Koehler and Douglass collaborated in 2008 on “The Lass from the Low Countree,” a recording of 18 songs by Niles.
Soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble, led by UK Opera Theatre Director Everett McCorvey, will perform a selection of songs from “Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting,” the first-published compilation of songs by Niles.
The concert will also feature a performance by the popular Reel World String Band and will be narrated by Tedrin Blair Lindsay, vocal coach and musical director at UK Opera Theatre at the UK School of Music in the UK College of Fine Arts.
John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was a powerful voice in the American folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, with Joan Baez, Burl Ives, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, recording his songs. He composed and arranged more than 1,000 songs and orchestral works, including “Go ‘Way from My Window,” “I Wonder as I Wander” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” He was also an eminent collector of Appalachian ballads and African-American spirituals.
Born in Louisville, Ky., 120 years ago, Niles became a serious student of Appalachian folk music by transcribing traditional songs from oral sources while an itinerant employee of the Burroughs Corporation in eastern Kentucky, from 1910 to 1917.
Niles came to Lexington at 20 years old, on May 2, 1912, exactly 100 years from the date of the upcoming celebration. He supported himself by playing piano at a bawdy house owned and operated by the nationally known Belle Brezing.
During World War I, Niles served in the U.S. Army Air Service and then studied music in France. He returned to the U.S. in 1920 and continued his studies at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
On the infant medium of radio in Chicago, Niles sang opera and folk songs. He later moved to New York City and held various jobs in the entertainment industry. Niles toured Europe and the U.S. in the 1930s with contralto Marion Kerby, he performed at the White House four times, and he regularly was featured at the Newport Folk Festival during the 1950s.
Niles married Rena Liptez in 1938 and the couple settled on the Boot Hill farm in Clark County, Ky., where they spent the rest of their lives. He died in Lexington on March 1, 1980, at age 87, and is buried near his farm, at St. Hubert’s Episcopal Church.
The John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, a collaborative effort of UK School of Music and UK Libraries, is named after the celebrated Kentucky song man and displays a number of traditional instruments that he handcrafted. The Niles Center is located on the UK campus in the Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center.
The Niles celebration, produced by Multigram Productions, a division of United Artists and Authors Agency, will begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, at the Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $5 for students. Concert tickets can be purchased at the Kentucky Theatre box office and online at multigramproductions.com.
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