I Wonder as I Wander

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During the heart of the Depression, American folklorist John Jacob Niles was sampling original music of Appalachian hill folk.

While passing through the rustic town of Murphy, North Carolina, in July 1933, Niles paused to attend a revivalist rally.

The Morgan family, traveling revivalists, had been in town for a few days.  They had no money and no place to stay.  They had camped out on the town square, where they did their cooking and hung up their laundry.  Town officials declared them a public nuisance and ordered the family to depart.

The Morgans asked if they could hold one more open-air meeting.  That way, they hoped, they could raise enough money to put some gas in their car.

It was during that gathering that Niles heard young Annie Morgan. 

He later wrote:  “A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile.  She began to sing.  Her clothes were unbelievable[sic] 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 line blew Niles away.

Would she be willing to sing that line again, for a quarter?

She did…seven times for seven quarters.  Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material, and a magnificent idea.”

Niles put together a complete song, and six months later he performed “I Wonder as I Wander” for the first time.  It soon became a classic hill country Christmas carol:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor ornery people like you and like I; I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall, with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall, and the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing: a star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s angels in heaven to sing, he surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I;  I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

This rendition by Audrey Assad – in which she sings just the first and last verses – captures its haunting, almost painful beauty. 

Whoopi Goldberg was asked during a recent interview which living person she admired the most.  She picked Pope Francis.  Then she added, by way of explanation: “Yeah, he’s goin’ with the original program.”

It sometimes gets lost that the group most impacted by Jesus’ “original program” was the poor – “poor, ornery people like you and like I.” 

The gospels report that impoverished, ordinary, one-day-at-a-time people were drawn to Jesus like iron filings to a magnet.  He honored and loved them.  He spoke of the Great Reversal, in which the first would be last, and the last would be first. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he taught, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3)  The kingdom belongs to those who have nothing to fall back on, nothing in the bank for a rainy day. 

They abandon themselves to God because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

Deep in her soul, a young Appalachian girl was filled with wonder – wonder that in a world where life isn’t easy, Jesus is all we need.

That’s God’s original program.