"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

December 17, 2011

I Wonder As I Wander

An old barn on our Kentucky farm, now fallen in completely, that is like an Appalachian manger. 
I'm sorry that we were unable to restore it or even keep it standing as I mourn these old structures.

I know I said I would not post again this month but I have a few free moments and wanted to share the story of my favorite American Christmas carol with you––and this one is truly American in every sense.

When I was a child I was fortunate to be privy to, and ultimately share, my father's musical interests. A Music major at the College of Wooster in Ohio, my father was an interim and occasional organist for many churches in the Akron area for over thirty years until the late 1990s. Music was his true and abiding passion. [His vocation was as a bank branch manager for several decades.]

So picture a suburban living room in the 1960s, a bit drab and beige with some gold tones for good measure, with a stereo hi-fi at one end of it. My father would come home from work, put on an LP record (that's "Long Playing" 33rpm record for you youngsters), still in his white shirt and tie, and often conduct along with the music. Sometimes we'd just listen and he'd interject and share with me what he knew about a particular piece of music. Under his tutelage I was exposed to Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Vierne and the more modern strains of Aaron Copland. From an early age, I learned the individual sounds of the instruments and the complexities of the fugue state. I learned about dissonance and harmony and the joys of a simple melody. [Later on the 1970s there would be the pop tunes from Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.] I spent my childhood watching him, absorbing the music, begging for favorites to be replayed, and even, when no one was looking, inventing choreography and singing along to popular musicals and the more obscure (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, anyone?). I may well have missed my true calling!

For about a month at Christmas the house was filled with the dulcet crooning of Andy Williams, the sonorous bass of Ed Ames and the more raucous singing of Mitch Miller––even the folksy warmth of The Kingston Trio, whose "Last Month of the Year" Christmas album is probably my all-time favorite. [In the 1970s this would be rivaled by the quiet and soulful "Rocky Mountain Christmas" by John Denver.] Even when my father was at work, my mother would play Christmas music to fill our days. The music from their collection of Christmas albums is emblazoned on my soul in that sentimental way that music can muster. It formed the essential soundtrack of our holidays. Sometimes, for reasons both bitter and sweet, it can be painful to hear these albums again (and yes, I have several on CD now).

A scene from Eli's award-winning heirloom manger–built of local cedar and manger people made out of clothespins.

One of the most haunting songs for me was Ed Ames' recording of the Appalachian carol, "I Wonder As I Wander." The lyrics read:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How 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.

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 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.

I always knew of its "Appalachian" origins from the liner notes, but only recently learned that it was composed from a Kentucky folk balladeer by the name of John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) from Louisville. [And how would I know while spending childhood Christmases in northeastern Ohio that I would one day be living in Kentucky?]

Niles had heard a woman singing the song in Murphy, North Carolina and set about to record it. Here is more about the history of the song. And here is another choral rendition that isn't bad at all [I believe this arrangement may be from Englishman, John Rutter].

It is such a simple and beautiful carol and I love to hear it as much as my favorite Appalachian hymn, "What Wondrous Love Is This?" (which we sung, as a congregation, at our wedding). Both are written in a minor key so there is a natural sense of haunting melancholy and pondering to heighten the wonderment that is felt in the lyrics to these songs. There is likely even an African American Spiritual origin to the melodies.

Merry Christmas to you all and always remember to enjoy the music ~

You come back when you're ready!


PS. In case you are wondering where the many albums are now, they were donated to the Music Department at the College of Wooster in 2008 in loving memory of my father, James Henry Seiberling. He never discussed with me where he would like them to go but after spending seven years in storage at our house in New Hampshire, and prompted by our move South, I decided that he might have liked that his extensive and eclectic collection remain intact and shared with others. The most obvious choice seemed to be the present and future music students at his alma mater where he gave so generously over the years (and where they would have the state-of-the-art equipment, in a CD world, to play them). I hope that Wooster's music students are enjoying them in musical theory and appreciation courses as much as I did all those years ago in our Ohio living room.


  1. Thanks for sharing the story of this song. I grew up listening to Mahalia's version back in the 60s and 70s. Good memories.

  2. So, Kentucky connections early on and you didn't even know it! Lovely holiday memories.

  3. I forgot this carol and now I remember. Thank you so much!

  4. When I was a student at the University of Kentucky I was in the Women's Chorus and the University Chorus. John Jacob Niles came to visit one day when we were doing his song, "I wonder as I wander." He was a thoroughly obnoxious, pompous, and self-aggrandizing old fart and he made what should have been a visit to be remembered into one that I wanted to forget. I still like the song but I do not remember him fondly.

  5. Joberta, I am always glad to know the other side of the artistic temperament. When I think of (many of) the great composers, artists and writers, few were probably people we'd want to hang out with or even admire much on a personal level. Your first-hand glimpse is great levity to my pompous old blog posts, too! It is interesting, too: I assumed he had written it but he was really just a song catcher in this instance. It likely has Spiritual roots given how he came about it and because of the melancholic tone. I wonder how many old American songs have been lost because they were not heard and recorded by someone like Niles (and others). Thanks for a great hoot and wonderful imagery! Merry Christmas, Catherine


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