“I wonder as I wander.” —John Jacob Niles
John Niles, a 1909 graduate of Manual Training School (later DuPont Manual High School) in Louisville, a skilled pianist and singer, spent much of his life wandering around Appalachia, listening for and documenting folk music.
He also researched African-American spirituals. At age 16, he composed his first song, “Go ’Way from My Window,” after listening to a black ditch-digger, Objerall Jacket. As Objerall dug, he sang two lines, using only two notes repeatedly, “Go ’way from my window, go ’way from my door.”
Musicians came to regard Nash as the “dean of American balladeers.”
He stumbled onto what became his best-known song in July of 1933, in Murphy, N.C. He saw a little unwashed girl in ragged clothes who was traveling town to town with her father as he held revivals, smiling sadly and singing sweetly without accompaniment, “I wonder as I wander.” Nash forgot most of the words to the little girl’s verses, but he never forgot that one poignant sentence and its haunting melody. He came to believe that the girl was really an angel sent to deliver a message about the incarnation of God.
Niles expanded that five-word fragment to four lines and the lyrics to three stanzas. Opening stanza:
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor, ordinary people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
Approaching Christmas this year and reflecting back on 2020, “wondering” and “wandering” hold new, deeper meanings. We can identify with ancient Israelites wandering 40 years in the wilderness, wondering when it would end and who would survive, and with the mysterious, angelic, singing girl out under the sky.