Southlandish! * I Wonder as I Wander

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I Wonder as I Wander: A Southern Christmas Carol
{ Featured Southerly }

I can vividly recall the first time I ran across this most humble of Christmas carols: reading the adolescent lit book Jacob Have I Loved in fifth grade.

At the time, I had never heard the song, which the book describes as “strange” and “lonely” but so beautiful, so powerful, so moving in its effect on the narrator that I wondered about it myself–what did the song sound like? Why did it stir such deep emotions in all who heard it? How could this song be sad and strange and lovely at the same time?

wondersongAs a ten-year-old kid in the era before iTunes, I could not quickly conjure up a version of the song with a trusty search engine, so a good 10 years probably passed before I first heard a recording of I Wonder as I Wander. Even then, it was just a rendition of the chorus repeated over and again as the entire song–though that alone was haunting and poignant enough for me to understand the power and beauty ascribed to it in my childhood reading.

When I did finally experience the song in its entirety, I played it myself on the piano, having found it among the carols printed in an old Christmas songbook my mother had. Where it had been all along.


Southerly *

Coming out of a music tradition rooted in vernacular language and religious themes, I Wonder as I Wander nearly epitomizes the Appalachian folk song, austere in melody and meaning, with no clear origin to speak of, surviving across time through oral tradition.

The stripped-back sound, lyrical simplicity, and tender vocal aesthetic of the song only sharpen the focus of the carol’s subject, a marveling over the aged promise of a Savior birthed in a cattle stall, a musing as to the wishes of an infant king, a pondering of the low estate of man, laid bare, in sound and in soul, to wonder–and wander–beneath the vast expanse of stars.

Origins *

If this folk carol was not actually born of North Carolina, it was most certainly discovered here, having been first transcribed by Kentucky-born composer John Jacob Niles during one of his song-collecting tours in Appalachia.

As the story goes, Niles was in the small mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina, when he heard a “lovely” but “tousled” young girl sing a few lines of a  beautiful, forlorn refrain during a town meeting in the public square. Asking her to sing it over and over several times, Niles gave her 25 cents for each solo as he recorded all he could in his notebook.

In the song’s tale as it was originally told to me, Niles later returned to the area to try to locate the the girl again but could find no trace, almost as if the haunting music had really come from a ghost.

However, the account in his unpublished biography is a bit less mystical:

“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. […] 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.

~ text courtesy of hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com


Happily, many versions of the song now abound! For your pleasure and edification, three different versions are linked below, courtesy of YouTube.

* This first example is an instrumental duet on the hammered dulcimer and the guitar, traditional Appalachian musical instruments. Even without the lyrics, this rendering clearly expresses the plaintive, searching force of this wistful folk song.

I Wonder as I Wander ~ Hammered Dulcimer and Guitar ~ no vocals ~ As performed by Steve and Ruth Smith, “a duo from Western North Carolina near Boone who play a blend of Celtic Appalachian traditional and original music.”

* This next example is a choral interpretation, conveying both the weight and the glory of this lovely and lonesome carol.

I Wonder as I Wander ~ choral arrangement ~ As performed by Director John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers, a mixed voice chamber choir. The accompanying photographs may not overawe you, but the music may just move you to tears. (Or maybe that’s only me…)

* This final example by the incomparable Julie Andrews pulls together the power of vocal dynamics and the beauty of the spare yet complex musical arrangement of this piece.

The video is really just a visual mode for the audio recording, more for listening than watching.


Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):

For more information on the story behind the song, view this video clip on this very topic!


Courtesy of the Contrapunctal Platypus, here is a selection from the original text of Jacob Have I Loved, the book that began my beguilement with this song. This excerpt is from the perspective of the narrator, Louise, as she listens to her beautiful and talented twin sister, the favored Caroline, sing a solo during the town’s Christmas program.

Caroline had sung [O Holy Night] last year. Everyone would remember. But this year Mr Rice had chosen a different solo for Caroline, a very simple one…Why had he given the showy song to Betty Jean and a strange thin melody to Caroline?…Mr Rice’s hands went down, and from the centre of the back row Caroline’s voice came suddenly like a single beam of light across the darkness.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander – out under the sky.

It was a lonely, lonely sound, but so clear, so beautiful that I tightened my arms against my sides to keep from shaking, perhaps shattering. Then we were all singing, better than we had all night, better than we ever had, suddenly judged, damned, and purged in Caroline’s light.

She sang once more by herself, repeating the words of the first verse so quietly that I knew surely I would shatter when she went up effortlessly, sweetly, and oh, so softly, to the high G, holding it just a few seconds longer than humanly possible and then returning to the last few notes and to silence.

When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back…dizzied by the winking brilliance of the night. ‘I wonder as I wander…’

~ text excerpt courtesty of the contrapuntal platypus


unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2014-2016 hilary hall
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