What is the most haunting Christmas carol you have ever heard? There are countless Christmas songs and carols being trumpeted over the airwaves this season, but none capture the poignancy of Christ’s birth as well as the old folk song, I Wonder As I Wander.
So where exactly did this song come from? That story is even more intriguing than the song itself! Here is how Ace Collins, author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, tells the story of the way John Jacob Niles, a historian and song-writer who spent most of his life traveling across the Appalachian Mountains in search of new folk music, discovered this Christmas favorite:
“On a cold December day in North Carolina, Niles observed people from a poor community going about their daily lives. From his own experience, Niles knew that just a few hundred miles away in New York, people crowded the gaily decorated city streets, stores could not hold all the eager shoppers armed with lists, and holiday music blared from long rows of loudspeakers. Yet in this village he could hear the sound of snow crunching under feet and spy children in ragged clothes looking longingly into windows where a few small toys were displayed. It was as if the modern world had never found this unspoiled place.
While Niles took in the pastoral scene that surrounded him, a solitary voice beckoned ever so faintly. Searching the street, his eyes honed in on a small girl sitting by herself on a bench. Unaware she had an audience, the child was softly singing a song Niles had never heard.
When she finished, the curious songwriter reached into his pocket and pulled out a pencil and tablet. Approaching the little girl, he introduced himself, sat down and then asked about the song. Al she knew about it was that her mother had taught it to her, like her grandma had taught it to her mother before her.
The song, which the girl called I Wonder As I Wander, haunted Niles. Long after the child disappeared into the evening, the man continued to study the words. They were unlike any he had ever uncovered in his long search for folk music. Deeply spiritual, incredibly thoughtful, yet obviously composed by someone of little means and education, the lyrics embraced the joy and wonder of Christmas but also lingered on the sacrifice of a child grown into a man that died on a cross. Both the words and music were perfect, simple, direct, and inspired. Even a master songwriter like Niles couldn’t imagine improving on them. “Where did it come from?” he wondered as he returned home.”
While there are many versions of this carol out there, one of my favorites is a performance given by Vanessa Williams. It’s impossible to listen to this gorgeous, haunting melody without standing in wonder and awe at the beautiful mystery that is Christmas!