John Jacob Niles (Film)

John Jacob Niles

  •  Bill Richardson with Mimi Pickering and Ben Zickafoose
  •  1978
  • Color IconColor
  •  31:01
  •  16 mm film
Film Description
John Jacob Niles is a portrait of the adding machine repairman who came to Eastern Kentucky in 1909, “heard the songs [his] father sang,” and became a much-noted “arranger, expander, collector, recorder, and performer” of traditional Appalachian ballads. Niles played an important part in the national “discovery” of Appalachian folk music. He describes how he travelled with the photographer Doris Ulmann through the 1920s and 30s — she taking pictures of the people, and he learning their songs. The film shows Niles in concert, at home, at work arranging his music, and explaining the historical place of balladry in American music.

Screenings & Festivals
  • American Folkore Society
  • Big Muddy Film Festival
  • FILMEX, Los Angeles

This film was preserved by Appalshop Archive with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. To support the work of preserving and safeguarding the collections, please consider designating a donation to Appalshop Archive.


“This remarkable 86-year-old performer is an artist of unique insight, as this affectionate film clearly shows … it is a rewarding experience to come to understand the man and his music.” — Media and Methods
“The film captures the essence of his art and music. A rare visit with a great man.” — Berea College