Musical Countdown to Christmas: I Wonder and I Wander by John Jacob Niles

Musical Christmas10

 

Welcome to Day 10 of my musical countdown to Christmas. Remember to enter a comment for your chance to receive my gift of the day.

Who was John Jacob Niles?

  • Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1892
  • Learned music theory from his mother and began writing music as a teenager
  • Served in the first world war
  • Studied music in France after the war
  • Sang opera and then toured the United States with Marion Kirby
  • A historian, song-writer, and recording artist
  • Traveled across the Appalachian Mountains to find folk music
  • Felt it was his duty to collect, preserve, and revive American musical folklore
  • Created dulcimers
  • Farmer
  • Wrote several books on music
  • Called the “Dean of American Balladeers”
  • A Contemporary of Joan Baez, Burl Ives, and Peter, Paul and Mary
  • There is a John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky which displays a number of instruments he crafted

The Story behind I Wonder as I Wander

  • On July 16, 1933 John Jacob Niles heard a little girl (Annie Morgan) singing a song he’d never heard before. She was dirty and wearing tattered clothes, but sang the song beautifully. The tune caught his attention because of the haunting melody.
  • She told him it had been passed on to her by her mother who heard it from her mother, etc.
  • Annie Morgan repeated the song seven times for Niles in exchange for a quarter
  • John Jacob Niles took the fragment of song he collected and used it to compose I Wonder as I Wander, consisting of a melody of four lines with three different stanzas
  • He completed the song on October 4, 1933 and first performed it on December 19, 1933
  • Listen to the recording below of I Wonder as I Wander as recorded by John Jacob Niles

Historical Context – What happened in 1933?

  • It was the worst year of the Great Depression
  • One in four people was unemployed
  • Adolf Hitler opened the first concentration camp at Dachau
  • A loaf of bread cost 7 cents; The average labourer earned $20/week
  • The Prohibition was repealed
  • Strong winds formed dust bowls in the Midwest
  • The vaccine for diphtheria was introduced in the United States

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