The Christmas folk song, I Wonder As I Wander, was very aptly named. It is attributed to John Jacob Niles who wandered through the towns and country roads of the Appalachian mountains in search of original folk songs. The library of work Niles uncovered is perhaps one of the most important in all of music history. I Wonder As I Wander may be the best testimony of his years of hard work.
One cold December day, John Jacob Niles visited the town of Murphy, North Carolina. As Niles watched and listened, he could hear the snow crunching under the feet of children who peered into shops displaying a few small toys. As he glanced up and down the street, he saw a young blond girl with a dirty face sitting by herself on a bench. Unaware that Niles was listening, the girl was singing a beautiful song with an intriguing melody and lyrics.
When the little girl finished singing, Niles introduced himself and learned that her name was Annie Morgan. She said she learned the song from her mother who had learned it from her grandmother. The girl’s family were poor revivalists and were camping in the town square, cooking their food in the open and hanging their wash from the monuments. Learning that her family was about to be evicted from their makeshift home, Niles paid Annie 25 cents to sing him the song again, which she did as Niles furiously transcribed words and music on paper. Before the day was over, she had sung the song for Niles eight times. Annie left with two dollars in her pocket which probably meant a lot to her family that day.
John Jacob Niles recognized the beautiful simplicity of the song, which to him combined the passion of the American spiritual with the irony of the Irish ballad. Niles published and recorded I Wonder As I Wander in the years before World War II. People everywhere were awed by his chance meeting with the little girl and the discovery of the song. Even though the song contributed to his own success, Niles was always careful to point out that his version and performance could never compare with Annie Morgan’s original performance as she sat alone on a bench in the snow of the North Carolina mountains.
Click here to hear Vanessa Williams sing I Wonder as I Wander
*Image courtesy of Kostian Li and Unsplash
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