Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17, 2009 - I Wonder As I Wander

On of the beloved songs of the upcoming Christmas season is “I Wonder As I Wander.” The song was written by a musicologist named John Jacob Niles, based on a fragment of folk music he discovered.

According to the Wikipedia article on the carol, in 1933 Niles was traveling through the Appalachian region of North Carolina, looking for traditional tunes. He was attending a fund-raising meeting held by an evangelistic group who’d been run out of town by the police (I’m sure there must be an interesting back-story behind that!). In his unpublished autobiography, Niles tells of how he first heard the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable 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.”

Niles was enchanted, and asked the girl to sing the line again. He offered her a quarter to do so, and she gladly complied (this was 1933, the midst of the Great Depression: folks earned money any way they could). Seven times he asked the girl to sing it, giving her a quarter each time. Seven quarters later – a dollar seventy-five, not a bad price in the 1930s – he had enough of a sense of where he was going with his composition. What he had was, in his own words, “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material – and a magnificent idea.”

I think you’ll agree: a dollar seventy-five (in 1933 dollars) was not a bad price to pay for a hauntingly beautiful melody that’s become a Christmas standard.

“I Wonder As I Wander” is in a minor key. More often than not, hymns are written in a major key. Those hymns are bright, joyful, triumphant. The minor-key hymns, by contrast, are quieter, more introspective, more reflective. Some are even somber.

We need them both. One of life’s great lessons, for cancer survivors or for anyone else, is that not all of life is lived in a major key. “Into each life some rain must fall,” goes the hoary old cliché. When we discover joy amidst even the rain, when we can learn to sing praise even in a minor key, we’ve got it made.

“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.”


Bryan said...

I have heard this song and it's very touchy indeed.

Julie Orvis Marcinkiewicz said...

beautiful story and a beautiful song. thanks for posting this

Tarun said...

Hiya, pastor Carlos.

Hope you had a lovely christmas and a blessed new year ahead. Love to all the family. We remain in ODC at present - and will keep you posted when we move. We remember you with joy as God gives us another new year of life.
Was amused as you mentioned "I wonder as I wander" - I had to sing it in a Christmas play at scholl - and have always loved the song!

Joseph said...

My friend loves this song! thanks for sharing it here.