Tuesday, 29 December 2015

John Jacob Niles' "I Wonder as I Wander"

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 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.

In 1933, in the Appalachians of North Carolina, John Jacob Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by an evangelical group that had been kicked out of town by the police.  A young, impoverished girl stood on a platform and sang three lines of a song over and over again.  Niles tried seven times to get her to sing the entire song, but all he could get out of her were the same three lines, each time in exchange for a quarter.  Singing in exchange for money would not have been an uncommon sight during the Great Depression.  However, this young girl, who called herself Annie Morgan, was anything but common.  Something about her struck a chord with Niles:  the contrast between her dirty, ragged clothes and her natural beauty.

Niles was moved to write a three stanza folk song, I Wonder as I Wander, using the girl's "haunting melody".  He first performed the song on December 19, 1933 at North Carolina's John C. Campbell Folk School.  It was first published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.  Joan Baez recorded the song in 1966 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvADhdoQ8n0).  The carol has been performed as one of the Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

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