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Reflections on John Jacob Niles
January 13, 2022, 9:00 AM

 

 

 

The biography of John Jacob Niles, I Wonder as I Wander (University Press of Kentucky 2010) opened with an “Overture” that set the scene for the ensuing story:

“From Boot Hill farm, it is but a brisk hike winding up the hill to St. Hubert’s Episcopal Church, the little country church whose front doors were lovingly crafted by Niles. Sacred icons and scriptures adorn the doors, but these carvings are also intertwined with images of the native tobacco leaves and dogwood blossoms that bind the church to the surrounding countryside. Inside the church, deer antlers surmount the hymn boards. While this symbol might seem extravagantly pagan for staid Episcopal worship, the antlers are there to remind the congregation that Saint Hubert, patron saint of the hunt, miraculously witnessed the appearance of a crucifix between a stag’s horns. The choice of Saint Hubert as the church’s patron is particularly apt, because the parish is centrally situated within the verdant countryside known as “hunt country.”

John Jacob, his wife Rena, and sons Thomas Michael Tolliver and John Edward, lived just down the road at Boot Hill Farm located beside Boone Creek at the Fayette/Clark County border on the Athens-Boonesboro Road. Niles, who had traveled all over the world in his career as a ballad collector, singer, author, and composer chose to settle in Clark County and moved into the home they built on April 17, 1939. Here Rena and John Jacob raised their sons, tilled the soil, embraced the hunt country community, and worshipped at Saint Hubert’s Church.

In the late 1940s, Niles began attending services at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington where he and Rena became close friends with Bishop William R. Moody and his wife Cordie Lee. In collaboration with Moody, Niles regularly provided music for the choir, inaugurated an annual Christmas “Evening of Carols” (1958-) broadcast on the radio, and composed the oratorio Lamentation (1952). When Bishop Moody initiated the design and construction of Saint Hubert’s Church he invited Niles to carve the front doors which he lovingly carved from native oak boards featuring passages of the 84th psalm.

Niles and Rena became members of the congregation when the church opened in 1969. Niles was buried in the cemetery following his death March 1, 1980 and Rena was interred beside him upon her passing on June 28, 1996.

The Kentucky Historical Society will dedicate a state historical marker at Boot Hill Farm on Jacob Niles’s 126th birthday April 28, 2018. The marker summarizes Niles’s career and the family’s attachment to the land and people of hunt country with this inscription:

“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 folksong collections Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Singing Soldiers.

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.”

 

Ron Pen
Clark County, KY 
March 2018

 


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