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Description: Finding I Wonder As I Wander

Kentuckian John Jacob Niles, renowned scholar and collector of folk music, found the carol, I Wonder As I Wander, in July of 1933 in Murphy, NC on a field trip with his photographer friend, Doris Ulmann. Just by chance, he discovered a little band of itinerant revival street preachers on the steps of Murphy Methodist church, who had rigged a wooden platform on the back of a car, and were about to use it for preaching. Preacher Morgan was the leader, and Mr. Niles heard the song first sung by his daughter, Annie. As he records in his unpublished journal:

“Meanwhile I heard singing coming from the other side of the town square. On investigating, I discovered a revivalist group about to start preaching…..I sauntered over to get a closer look at Preacher Morgan and his entourage. A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins….But, best of all, she was positively 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. The burden of her song had to do with wondering and wandering and the reasons for Christ’s birth and death: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus, the Savior was born for to die”… and then she stopped although I had thrown a silver quarter at her feet.” ”

Mr. Niles furiously transcribed this little tune into his field notebook, and then encouraged Annie Morgan to sing more. She must have been an astute businesswoman, because she sang for him seven more times, each time he gave her a silver quarter, and each time she revealed a little bit more of the song. He edited it and scored it for print in October, 1933, and he sang it publicly for the first time in December of that same year at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. Since that time, it has become one of the most popular and beloved American Christmas carols, arranged numerous times for choirs, soloists, orchestras, and handbells, and it has appeared in countless anthems and Christmas church cantatas. And it all began right here in Western North Carolina.

(Incidentally, at today’s silver prices, Mr. Niles paid Annie Morgan $64 for I Wonder As I Wander – more money than she had ever seen at one time.)
Key: B Minor
Category: Christmas and Religious