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|I Wonder as I Wander|
John Jacob Niles
"I Wonder as I Wander" is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.
While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the police. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song: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". (In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.) 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. His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.
Niles's "folk composition" process caused confusion among singers and listeners, many of whom believed this song to be anonymous in origin. Niles undertook lawsuits to establish its authorship and demanded royalties of other performers of the song.
"I Wonder as I Wander", since its collection, has always been sung to the melody published by Niles. According to academic and theologian Ian Bradley, the "clean, haunting melody...maintains the open-air atmosphere and sense of wistful wandering conjured up in the first line."
A setting of the tune is part of Benjamin Britten's Folk song arrangements for both high/medium and medium/low voice. The arrangement was originally published by G. Schirmer in 1934.
A notable recent choral setting by Swiss composer Carl Rütti, with the original words and an entirely new melody, has been performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel, University of Cambridge.
Westminster Choir College performs an arrangement by Steve Pilkington annually at its Readings and Carols concert.