I Wonder As I Wander – The Christmas Folk Song Discovered By Chance

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

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

Angels From the Realms of Glory – The Christmas Carol Written By The Political Extremist

James Montgomery was born in Scotland to Irish Moravian missionaries in 1771. While his parents went to the West Indies to do evangelistic work, James was sent to live in a Moravian community in Ireland. At the age of seven, he was enrolled at Fulneck Seminary, a Moravian boarding school in Yorkshire, England. Inspired by the hymns he heard, James began writing poetry at the age of ten. 

Writing poems and stories was basically all James Montgomery enjoyed during his time in school. Nothing else interested him. A few years later, the parents James hardly knew died on the mission field. James flunked out of seminary, became a baker’s assistant for a brief time, and then wandered from place to place. By the time he was twenty, he was basically homeless, sometimes working, often not, living wherever he could and with whomever he could. Fortunately, an editor at The Sheffield Register noticed James’ writing ability and gave him a job.

James later became editor of the paper when the previous editor had to flee the country because of his fear of political persecution. He changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris and served as its editor for 31 years. When James wasn’t serving as editor of the paper, he was reading his Bible in an attempt to understand why his parents felt led to move around the world to serve God. 

Even though most of his editorials were political in nature, he published a different type of article on December 24, 1816. Readers opened their paper and read the following words:

Angels from the realms of glory, Wing your flight o’er all the earth;

Ye who sang creation’s story now proclaim Messiah’s birth.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

Shepherds in the fields abiding, Watching o’er your flocks by night,

God with man is now residing, Yonder shines the infant light.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

Sages, leave your contemplations, Brighter visions beam afar;

Seek the great Desire of nations, Ye have seen His natal star.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King. 

Saints before the altar bending, Watching long in hope and fear.

Suddenly the Lord, descending, In his temple shall appear.

Come and worship, come and worship, Worship Christ the newborn King.

James Montgomery eventually returned to the Moravian Church and became an avid writer of carols and hymns. In fact, he continued to publish hymns until his death in 1854.

Click here to hear Angels From the Realms of Glory by Reawaken.

*Image courtesy of Luke Stackpoole and Unsplash.**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com

Good King Winceslas: The Christmas Carol About A Kind Man

Kindness is rare these days, but in the 10th century, Good King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic) was known for his kindness. His father converted to Christianity from paganism, but his mother, being the daughter of a pagan tribal chief, did not. His father died when Wenceslas was 13 and his mother immediately tried to turn him away from his faith in Christ. Wenceslas resisted and had her exiled when he became king at 18. 

Wenceslas was known far and wide for his acts of kindness. One biographer wrote this of his kind deeds: 

“Rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Wenceslas was loved by his people and he ruled them for a decade. However, at the young age of 28, Wenceslas was assassinated on his way to church by his brother. Fortunately, as a martyr, his influence lived on. He was canonized by the Catholic Church and is now the patron saint of the Czech state.

The carol Good King Wenceslas was written down in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale. As the story and the song tells, Wenceslas sees a poor man collecting wood on a cold December 26th evening, when the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated. Wenceslas finds out where the poor man lives, then along with his servant, he gathers meat, drink, and firewood and delivers it to the poor man’s home. On the way, his servant almost gives up because of the cold, but Wenceslas directs him to walk directly behind him. Miraculously, the servant feels the warmth of Wenceslas as he walks in the footprints of his master. The carol ends with a call to all Christians to bless the poor, and in doing so, find true blessings for themselves.

Even though Good King Wenceslas is not a song directly about Jesus, it is a song about someone who was Christlike at Christmastime. We could all learn a lesson from Wenceslas that kindness is a virtue worth keeping, especially if we are blessed with the means to bless others.

Click here to hear Bing Crosby sing Good King Wenceslas 

*Photo courtesy of Nathan Lemon and Unsplash

The Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Carol That Caused A Legal Battle

When I was in second grade, I sang The Little Drummer Boy as a solo because I was the only child in my grade who knew the words. I still love the song, but there are three things that intrigue me about it. First, how did the ox and lamb keep time? I always envision them with metronomes, snapping their hooves to the beat. Second, living in New Orleans for many years, it sounds as if the drummer is comparing himself to a sandwich when he sings, “I am a Poor Boy too.” Finally, I’m amazed at the story of how the song came to be.

The Little Drummer Boy is the fictional story of a boy who couldn’t afford a gift for baby Jesus. Instead, he played his drum at the manger, once Mary nodded her approval that is. At the end of the song, Jesus smiles at the drummer boy, causing us to smile as well. 

In 1941, Katherine K. Davis wrote the words and music to The Little Drummer boy which she called The Carol of the Drum. Some claim she translated an old Czech carol. Others say she adapted the song from an old French legend where a juggler performs for a statue of Mary. Still others say she arranged an existing song with a small to medium sized group of musicians and composers. However, it seems the most likely story is that she wrote the song completely on her own while trying to take a nap. She tried to rest but the words and tune wouldn’t leave her alone. So, she rose and wrote most of the song in one sitting.

Davis finished the song, sent it off for publication, but never really heard much about it. Assuming it was rejected, she went on with her life. Several years later, a friend called her and said, “Your carol is on the radio. I hear it all the time.” Davis asked, “What carol?” Her friend stated, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Davis replied, “I never wrote a carol with that name. On which station did you hear the song?” Her friend paused then replied, “All of them.”

Davis turned on her radio and soon heard a beautiful recording of her song performed by the Trapp Family Singers (Yes, the ones from the Sound of Music). She called the radio station and said, “That’s my carol you’re broadcasting.” They replied that the carol had several names attached to it, but not hers. After some legal intervention, Davis finally received the credit she deserved for writing and composing The Little Drummer Boy. In 1968, the song was made into a claymation animated movie. Eight years later, Sherwood Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida endured my performance of the song.

Pa rum pum pum-pum.

Click here to hear The Trapp Family Singers perform The Carol of the Drum (a.k.a. The Little Drummer Boy)

Click here to hear For King and Country perform The Little Drummer Boy.

Click here to watch the animated movie based on the song.

*Image courtesy of Imir Yalon and Unsplash

The First Noel – The Christmas Song With The French Name

Being a song that was passed down orally, The First Noel may date to the 13th or 14th century. Some believe the song was inspired by a dramatization of the Christmas Story where actors would act out vignettes as they sang. The song does tell the story of Jesus’ birth from Matthew 2 and Luke 2, and would have worked well as a dramatized song with a repeating chorus. 

The word “Noel” is French for “Christmas” which is derived from the Latin word “Natalis,” meaning “Birthday.” Even though “Noel” works well for the chorus of The First Noel, it’s strange to consider that when the ancient singers arrived at the chorus of each verse that they were simply singing, “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas….” 

The First Noel was first published by Davies Gilbert in 1823 in Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Ten years later, William Sandys published the song in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern increased the popularity and prominence of the carol. The song originally had nine stanzas, but five are most commonly used today. In most recordings, artists rarely perform more than two or three verses which is a shame because it causes people to miss out on the story of the song. Though the angels appear to the shepherds in the first verse, most of the carol focuses on the journey of the wise men, giving the carol an Epiphany focus. The fourth verse is one of my favorites: 

“This Star drew nigh to the Northwest; O’er Bethlehem it took it’s rest.

And there it did both stop and stay, Right over the place where Jesus lay.”

Click here to read all nine verses of The First Noel.

Click here to hear Claire Crosby and Family sing The First Noel

*Image courtesy of Jon Tyson and Unsplash
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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – The Christmas Carol That Angered Scrooge

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest Christmas carols still popular. It was most likely first published in 1760 but it was centuries old by this time. The lyrics, sung in a minor key, center around the joy experienced at the news of Christ’s birth – Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy!”

The first line is unusual to modern English speakers because it’s not a phrase we typically use. Different sources give different meanings for the first phrase of the song. However, most commonly, the word “rest” is translated as “keep” and the word “merry” is translated as “harmony” or “in harmony.” With this understanding, “God Rest Ye Merry” probably really means something like “May God keep you in peace” or “God keep you in harmony.

The Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen even made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol when Scrooge terrifies carolers with his foul temper: 

“At the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

It’s interesting that Scrooge attacks the carolers as they are singing the very lyrics he most needs to hear – “Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.” As the song states, regardless of social class or distinction, the love and power that exists in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is far greater than anything that could possibly disturb or dismay us. If only Scrooge would have heeded the words to the song, he could have saved himself from a very disturbing evening.

Click here to hear God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Rend Collective

*Image courtesy of S&B Vonlanthan and Unsplash

**This post and others like it can be found at www.johnjfrady.com 

The Christmas Carol That Was Sampled (possibly) by an 80’s Rock Band

Adeste Fideles, is a Latin hymn which is translated O Come, All Ye Faithful. The official authorship has been given to John Francis Wade (1711-1786), whose name is included on most if not all of the earliest manuscripts. Even so, the lyrics and tune appear to be the result of a collaboration of several people over hundreds of years, although what we sing today is a 19th century version of an 18th century compilation.

Some believe that Adeste Fideles is not actually about Christ, but is instead about Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, England’s last Catholic king. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie led a rebellion to restore the Catholic House of Stuart to the English throne. Fideles is believed to mean Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is also believed to be a term for England. If this is true, the song is actually a war cry shouting out, “Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English.” 

More recently, others believe that the 1980’s rock band Twisted Sister sampled the melody of their biggest hit, We’re Not Gonna Take It from O Come, All Ye Faithful. The melodies of the songs are very similar, but it’s purely coincidental. Jay Jay French, lead guitarist of Twisted Sister stated in a radio interview that the band discovered the similarities and recorded a version of O Come, All Ye Faithful for their Christmas album A Twisted Christmas. 

I suppose I can ignore the possibility of O Come, All Ye Faithful having its origins with Bonnie Prince Charlie if it results in a song that God can use to get a rock group like Twisted Sister to sing “O Come, Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!”

Click here to hear Adeste Fideles by Andrea Bocelli

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Tasha Cobbs

Click here to hear O Come, All Ye Faithful by Twisted Sister 

*Image courtesy of Gareth Harper and Unsplash.

The Christmas Carol Written From Personal Experience

Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which is probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics to the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Shortly after the American Civil War, Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land which extended through the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, Brooks traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback so he could attend a service in Constantine’s ancient basilica, built over the potential site of the Nativity. Of his journey, Brooks reported: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.”

It was here, in the fields outside Bethlehem that Brooks first conceived of the phrase: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.” Several years later, Brooks finally completed the song and asked Lewis Redner, his organist, to write the music. The song was first performed by the children’s choir of their church. It wasn’t long before the song was included in hymnals worldwide.

Even though Phillips Brooks and his wife never had children of their own, they had a great love for children. Later in life, they met and ministered to young Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. Brooks explained the gospel of Jesus to Keller for the first time. Keller, through her teacher and translator Anne Sullivan, said, “I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known His name.”

Even though the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem was written long before Helen Keller met Phillips Brooks, it shares what the joy of salvation might have felt like to her:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. 

Click here to hear O Little Town of Bethlehem performed by Chris Tomlin.

*Image courtesy of Travis on Unsplash

The Christmas Carol That Ministered To Me

One of the sweetest Christmas carols, loved by people of all generations, is Away In A Manger. Because the author of the song was anonymous and because it was first published in a German hymnal in the mid-1800’s, people assumed the carol must have been written by Martin Luther. In fact, around the world, people began to call the song Luther’s Cradle Hymn.. However, there is no real proof of Luther’s authorship so the original source of the carol remains anonymous.

The beauty of Away In A Manger lies in its sweetness and simplicity. In a few verses, the carol shares about how God lowered Himself to be born among us in humble, crude circumstances. No wonder the lyrics ask in a sweet prayer like manner: “Be near Me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.”

I remember praying those words many years ago when my wife and I experienced a significant loss. In the midst of my grief, I was trying to prepare to lead the musical worship for an early December service. One of the songs we were to sing was Away In A Manger. As I sang the words, sadness overwhelmed me and I broke down in tears. I prayed then sat for a long while, contemplating the lyrics of the song. Before the session was over, I had written these two new verses for Away In A Manger:

No Longer A Baby, He grew to a man

Sent to us from Heaven to fulfill God’s plan.

He died on a cross to atone for our sin

Then rose from the dead to be alive again.

This Precious Lord Jesus Is All That We Need,

If We Make Him Our Savior and Our Lord Indeed,

O Please, Wondrous Jesus, Be With Us Today,

Fill Us With Your Spirit, We Now Humbly Pray.

Click here for an interesting arrangement of Away In A Manger by Moira Della Torre.

*Image Courtesy of Kelly Sikemma and Unsplash

The Christmas Song That Is Grammatically Incorrect

It was 1984 and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia was preparing for their well known Living Christmas Tree presentation. Dr. Jerry Falwell, asked a virtually unknown singer/songwriter/comedian named Mark Lowry to put the program together. Lowry’s plan was to connect Christmas songs with play-like dialogue. 

As Mark Lowry prepared the music and the dialogue, he shared with his mother, Bev Lowry, that he wanted to capture the true essence of the first Christmas. Bev replied, “You know, if anyone knew Jesus was virgin born, it was Mary… and her silence at the cross is proof, I think, that her story was indeed true.” Mark Lowry turned his reflections into part of the dialogue for the play, which was wildly successful. However, the words he had written continued to live on him for years. 

In 1991, after Mark Lowry joined the Gaither Vocal Band, he told Buddy Greene, a renowned songwriter who was touring with the band, about the song. Greene asked to see the lyrics so Lowry wrote them down for him. Within thirty minutes, Greene had composed the melody of Mary, Did You Know? Mark Lowry loved the tune and began making preparations to record the song. 

Some sources report a humorous debate during this time about the song between Gloria Gaither, wife of Bill Gaither, and Mark Lowry. Gloria said that the main line of the song was grammatically incorrect. She asked, “Shouldn’t the line actually be ‘Mary, do you know?’” Mark smiled and replied, “My version sings a lot better.” If you try singing the song with “do” instead of “did,” you will probably agree with Lowry.

Even though Lowry loved the song, he was concerned that the range of the song was greater than his own so he asked Michael English, fellow Gaither Vocal Band member to record the song. English agreed and released the song on his debut album. Even though the album was released in January, Mary, Did You Know? became an instant hit and has since been covered by over 500 artists. While more of a Christmas song than a Christmas carol, It has truly become a modern Christmas classic.

Click here to hear Mary, Did You Know performed by Mark Lowry and Voctave

*Photo courtesy of Phil Hearing and Unsplash