Carols really are fascinating. Many have their own individual stories, many are bundled up in their time, sometimes the history has been lost to us. We know the familiar stories about the origins of Silent Night (the organ broke down, so Gruber had to compose a new hymn. It’s not really true, but a great story), and the supposed Jacobite origins of Adeste Fidelis, but here’s a rather lovely story about a rather haunting American carol, “I wonder as I wander”.
It was discovered in North Carolina, buy John Jacob Niles, who like Vaughn Williams was a folk song collector. He was in his early thirties when he was song collecting in the Appalacians.
He was in the town of Murphy in North Carolina, a town which had grown up pretty quick and industrial, but this was the early thirties, the time of the Great Depression. There was a squatting homeless family there in Murphy, living in the town centre and generally being what was regarded as a nuisance. The father was a wandering preacher, a revivalist, but it seemed the days when people would listen to revivalist preachers and pay them for the privilege had long gone.
So the family were so poor they camped their wagon in the town centre, more or less begging when they put on their “revivalist shows”, cooking and washing in the town Centre, and hanging up their washing on the confederate monument. The Town notables did not like this defiling of their town, and they asked them to move on. But in order to do that they insisted they needed money to pay for food for their journey – so the homeless family put on another revivalist meeting.
Niles wasn’t very interested in revivalist meetings, but he was interested in songs – and one of the preacher’s daughters, a young girl, was to provide him with a song.
In his own words:
“” It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed girl, her ash-blond hair hanging in skeins, her clothes unbelievably dirty and ragged, 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”
But that was enough for Niles. He completed the song according to what he imagined it would be, and published it. It made him famous in his own way, although it hardly made him rich.
He said he often wondered about Annie Morgan, what became of her and her ragged family during the times of great poverty for America. Whether she would have ever walked past a choir singing her song.
Anyhow, it’s a beautiful tune. Many thanks, wee Annie Morgan.