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December 5: I Wonder as I Wander December 5, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Music.
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Another more obscure carol today…one with mysterious words and a poignant melody. I didn’t know until I checked Wikipedia this evening that “I Wonder as I Wander” is not, in fact, a “traditional” Christmas carol, but was composed fairly recently. The story of its origin – maybe stranger than any other Christmas carol – is itself more than a little haunting:

“I Wonder as I Wander” had its origins in a song fragment collected on July 16, 1933 by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song: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.’

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea”. Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today, extending the melody to four lines and the lyrics to three stanzas.

The carol is featured in one of my favorite children’s books, Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. One of the scenes that always stuck with me most vividly was when Louise, the older twin, is listening to her favored younger sister – and star soprano – Caroline sing at the school Christmas concert.

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…’

Ever since I read this scene, on winter nights when I’ve walked beneath a cold starry sky I’ve always thought of this melody. Here’s a beautiful recording by the Cambridge Singers:

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