“I Wonder As I Wander” is an American Christmas carol with words and melody by John Jacob Niles. He based it on a few snatches of song he heard on July 16, 1933, in the small Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina:
A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins, and as I came closer and stood beside the fantail, I discovered that her young hands were lovely, save only for the unkempt, broken finger- nails….But, best of all, she was positively 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.1
It’s fitting he heard this song from a child in dirt and rags, because Jesus entered our dirty world to redeem us from the rack and ruin of sin. The words are given a plaintive reflection by the minor key of the melody.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die,
For poor orn’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.
1Ron Pen, Rick Kogan, I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles (The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY: 2010) 150. The year and date are mentioned on pages 146 and 149, respectively. This video omits the third verse:
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 for to sing,
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.
“The unusual melody reveals the influence of a pure modal heritage, possibly of New World settlers from the British Isles.” More on the melody here.