Indulging in yet another reprise this AM–am engaged in a fierce Nintendo bowling tournament with the Princess and I’m losing (^_^)!!
In an unpublished memoir, the great Appalachian singer and songwriter John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) tells a story of how he was inspired to write what has become, for many, the quintessential Appalachian Christmas carol.
A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins. . .But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.
The year was 1933. The girl’s name, according to Niles’s memoir, was Annie Morgan. She was part of an evangelical group that had been ordered out of town by Murphy, North Carolina police. She sang the same line—or fragment of a song, with three lines; accounts differ-—seven times, for a quarter a pop, during a fundraiser, which Niles happened to pass–and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea” that became “I Wonder as I Wander”, which he first performed in public at Christmas of the same year. Its wistful minor-key melody and lyrical simplicity–extended to three stanzas of four lines each and a coda, repeating the first stanza– make it sound as if it were hundreds of years old, and Niles fought for years to establish and maintain his copyright.
There are many beautiful recordings of this carol. Unfortunately, Niles’s own is not available on YouTube. Here it is sung by the American contralto Gladys Swarthout (1900-1969).
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor orn’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander. . .out under the sky. . .