While much Christmas music is either jubilantly celebratory or tenderly domestic, “I Wonder as I Wander” pensively meditates on the personal significance of the incarnation. It comes from the folk music tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
It isn’t exactly authentic folk music, but an original composition by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). The eccentric Niles was an odd amalgam of classically trained musician, folk-song collector, and showman.
John Jacob Niles’ early life
Niles came from a musical family. His father called square dances and sang folk songs. His mother played organ and piano for their church and taught him music theory. The family lived in Louisville, Kentucky until he was 10, then moved to a farm. He began to collect folk music as a teenager and won a contest at 15 singing “Barbary Ellen.”
Although he was born at the beginning of the Jim Crow Era, he appreciated African American culture as much as white culture. At 16, he worked alongside a black ditch digger his father had hired. The man sang as he worked—the same two short phrases on just two notes over and over. Niles composed “Go ‘Way from My Window” based on the song fragment. He later published the collections “Singing Soldiers,” based on songs sung by African American soldiers of the First World War, and “Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting.”
His first job out of high school required him to travel throughout the South, and he began collecting folk songs in earnest. He enlisted in the US Army Air Service in 1917 and sustained an injury during the war. After the war, he remained in France to study music in Lyon and Paris.
Returning to the US in 1920, he continued his musical studies at the University of Cincinnati. Then he moved to Chicago, where he sang both opera with the Lyric Opera and folk music on Westinghouse radio.
John Jacob Niles’ career
Niles published numerous collections of music beginning in 1925, returned to the Appalachians several times to collect more folk songs, and began to tour the country as a folk singer. He started his recording career a decade later. These efforts both made and marred his reputation.
His earliest publications contain not only the music he collected, but some original compositions. He never clearly identified his original works. Later, when other singers assumed they were in public domain, he had to scramble to gain recognition (and royalty payments) for them.
He wasn’t so much a folk singer as a singer of folk songs. That is, he made no attempt to sing in an authentic folk style. Instead, he carefully crafted a stage persona and sang with an overly dramatic intensity that comes across to many listeners as studied and false. He accompanied himself with instruments he made himself, but they, too, were inventions and not replicas of standard folk instruments.
Nonetheless, he exerted great influence on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and other leaders of the folk revival of the 1960s. He became known as the Dean of American Balladeers and made a recording for Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Only John and Alan Lomax were more important American folksong collectors in the first half of the 20th century.
I wonder as I wander
I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July, 1933.
The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, cooking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance.
Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely.
She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander”. At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea.
With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, “I Wonder As I Wander” came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung.
Is it true? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Niles provided a piece that has been loved for decades. If he embellished his description, the song remains a favorite, anyway. A wide variety of singers have recorded a wide variety of arrangements of it. Here’s Niles himself.
I wonder as I wander: the life of John Jacob Niles / Steve Roud, The Free Library
John Jacob Niles –– Biography / J. Poet, Amoeba.com
John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) / The Hymns and Carols of Christmas