Photo from University of Kentucky Archives, The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection
by Susan Hutchinson
While most of us know the song, few are aware that “I Wonder as I Wander” is traceable to a family down its luck in Murphy, N.C., during the Depression and the chance encounter between a lovely teenage girl singing for quarters and a young musician.
The popular and hauntingly elegant Christmas carol is found in many hymnals today and has been performed by numerous singers, including Vanessa Williams and Julie Andrews. The tune, attributed to John Jacobs Niles (1892-1980), is set in a minor key and has lyrics that recall a child’s thoughts in plainspoken Appalachian vernacular.
Here is a version sung by the Cambridge Singers:
In the summer of 1933, John Jacob Niles, a musician and composer, was working as a personal assistant to photographer Doris Ulmann who was traveling through WNC documenting Depression era Appalachia. On July 16, they were working in Murphy, where an interesting melodrama was playing out.
Niles wrote in his unpublished autobiography:
“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 date was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. 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.
According to Wikipedia, the song was performed publicly for the first time at the John C. Campbell Folk School by Niles on December 19, 1933.
While the song’s Appalachian roots are agreed upon, and Niles won a lawsuit to retain the rights to it, its authorship is still in contention by some. David Brose, folk historian of the John C. Campbell Folk School, agrees only in part with Niles’ account. “This was either 1933 or 1934 as these were the two years that John Jacob Niles was here assisting his woman friend, photographer Doris Ulmann,” recounts Brose. “Niles ran out of quarters before the song was complete, so he finished the song himself. Although Niles did not write it by any measure of truth, he did finish the last few lines. He then proceeded to copyright it and claim total authorship.”
Many singers and listeners believe this song to be anonymous in origin. But what is not in question is that this popular hymn was first documented and codified in humble WNC. For a Southern Appalachian rendition, check out this performance on hammered dulcimer and guitar by Steve and Ruth Smith.
Here’s an audio track of Niles singing “I Wonder as I Wander.”