A simple Appalachian melody captures the awe of Christmas for week of December 22, 2011

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By Bill Horner

  A simple Appalachian melody captures the awe of Christmas


I cannot recall the first time I heard the song. I have enjoyed Christmas music ever since my pre-school years when Mom and Dad’s massive mahogany RCA hifi record player belted out Bing Crosby, Mitch Miller, and Percy Faith, all at their Christmas best.

But the song with the haunting melody written in minor key with the seemingly unfinished quality first captured my heart the night Janet Nelson sang it in church, accompanying herself on the autoharp. Janet was a gifted singer even as a young college student. In fact she had auditioned and won a singing part in the Anthony Quinn/Ingrid Bergman movie “A Walk in the Spring Rain.”  Her rendition of the song that Christmas in 1967 was different from any I had heard before. 

I have been fascinated with it ever since.

The song has its origin in Depression-era Appalachia. A young musician named John Jacob Niles was touring the region as an assistant to photographer Doris Ulmann.  Along the way Niles collected folk songs from the locals. According to Niles’s own account at John-Jacob-Niles.com, they had just arrived in Murphy, NC, where a revivalist family named Morgan was camped out on the town square. Having been there awhile and cooking and washing in the public square, even hanging their laundry on the Confederate statue, they were about to be ejected by the police.  Suddenly their daughter, a homespun beauty named Annie, emerged from their tent and began to sing one line of a song over and over. Niles was captivated by the haunting melody and poignant theology of the song and offered Annie a quarter to sing it again. About seven quarters later Niles had in his notebook three lines and pieces of a melody. From these he composed the rest. And “I Wonder as I Wander” was born.

In the intervening years the song has become a Christmas classic.

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,/ How Jesus the Savior did come for to die./ For poor on'ry people like you and like I.../ I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

This musical masterpiece, recently released to the public domain, expresses the awe in the heart of the singer as he considers the visitation of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ, to this earth for the salvation of sinful people. 

Listening to the melody and lyrics, I can almost picture the weather-beaten mountain farmer, bone-weary from his chores, strolling across his field on a chilly December evening, pondering his own standing with his Creator as he gazes at the stars.

“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.”

The song further acknowledges that this Jesus was fully human and fully Divine. His birth and upbringing were in such poverty-stricken surroundings that He could relate even to poor Appalachian mountaineers. And in this unique role He fulfilled the longing desire of God’s people Israel, as expressed by the Old Testament prophets, to see their Messiah. One can feel that same longing in the heart of the singer.

“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 heav'n for to sing,/ He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.”

The final verse reiterates that this Christ child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, implying that He is therefore our sure hope. As the birds are disappearing for the night and the first pale stars are beginning to shine, our mountain singer reflects on the command that this child has even over them.

In the midst of all the Christmas traditions and gifts and fellowship, note the conclusion and the wonder of one poor observer as expressed in this classic song.  Indeed, the baby in the manger is our Savior and Lord.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).