A BALLAD OF WONDER by Pastor Ken Rickett

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Note: This story is based on an article by Dr. John Hood “Local Tie to Classic song ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ in the newspaper Cherokee Scout, published December 27, 2023.

John Jacob Niles born 1892 in Kentucky got his first job in the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in 1910, selling the hand-cranked novelty to customers. With an ear for music, he was always engaged in his hobby of discovering folk songs that he heard. World War I broke out in Europe during the year 1917, and Niles enlisted in the US Army Air Services and fought in France where he was wounded. He began his study of music there and upon returning to the States, he enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and became a singer on stage and radio.

His hobby, his passion, of seeking old folk songs led him to take several trips in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. One such trip in the summer of 1933 led him to Murphy, the county seat of Cherokee County, NC (my home county). While there, a drama was unfolding as a poor family (surname Morgan), camped on the town square for some time and police, in response to complaints, insisted that they leave. Being revivalists, Preacher Morgan stated that he lacked the money to feed and clothe his family, nor could he afford the gas to drive his ramshackle vehicle out of town. So, what happened next? A little platform had been attached to their car, and a girl, Annie Morgan, stepped out and began to sing. Niles states that her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she needed a good bath. Her ash-blond hair hung in long skeins. Yet, she was beautiful, and she could sing. She smiled as she sang, singing a single line of a song.

Niles quickly jotted down the notes and gave the girl seven quarters and she repeated the fragments of the song seven times. Now, Niles had the raw materials for what he believed to be an old ballad from Scotland. In the morning the Morgan family was gone…to where, nobody knows. But John Jacob Niles was mesmerized by the haunting notes sang by the girl.

Ninety years ago on December 19, 1933, after hearing the notes earlier that summer from little Annie Morgan, John Jacob Niles was at the John C. Campbell Folk School that straddles both Cherokee and Clay Counties, North Carolina. He sang:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour came for to die

For poor on’ry people like you and I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky 

There’s a mystery here regarding the word “on ‘ry” because some people add another “r” and it becomes “or’ n ‘ry” and phonetically it sounds like “ordinary”. Which is it? “On ‘ry” could mean “ornery” or “cantankerous”. However, an old northern English or Scotch pronunciation of “ordinary” was “or ‘n ‘ry” in everyday dialect, the word may have sounded like “or ‘ry.” However, Niles needed two syllables, not three to fit the tune. In the North Carolina mountains, largely settled by the Scotch-Irish, it seems as if “on ry” was said with a sense of pride in being ordinary folks and it was said of those persons perceived as being arrogant or stubborn or hard-headed.

When Annie Morgan sang for Niles that summer, just after the police had asked them to move, can’t you see her express amazement that God would become flesh in Jesus so that ‘poor on ‘ry people” (ornery) people like her family would find redemption?

I can! 

I wonder as I wander…in awe…..about this marvelous grace!