Christmas Heritage Holidays in Appalachia

I Wonder As I Wander Murphy, NC 1933

Murphy NC 1930s

Murphy 1930s Courtesy of Cherokee Co. Historical Museum

Last Christmas Pap loaned me a book someone had bought him, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas. He knew I’d find the history of the songs interesting and I did-but I was surprised to learn, one Christmas song originated right here in my back yard.

John Jacob Niles was born in Kentucky on April 28, 1892. He was raised in a musical family and had a strong interest in music himself. By age 17 Niles begin composing original songs. Niles had an interest in folk songs and collected them from his fellow soldiers while serving in the military. He published 2 books from the collected songs Singing Soldiers and Songs My Mother Never Taught Me.

Niles life centered around music-collecting, recording, performing, and composing until his death on March 1, 1980.

1933 found John Jacob Niles in Murphy, NC. As he walked around town he noticed the police trying to evict some folks from the center of town. This is how he remembered the incident:

“I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina,and the time was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander”. At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, “I Wonder As I Wander” came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung.”

The song, I Wonder as I Wander, is world famous-but until I read about it in Pap’s book-I had never heard of it. Funny how the song came from just down the road-but never found it’s way into my life until last Christmas.

For this Pickin’ & Grinnin’ In the Kitchen Spot-Chitter and Chatter give the song a try.

Like most towns, Murphy is decked out for Christmas. When I drive through town, seeing the tree and the lights, I find myself thinking of a little blond headed girl named Annie Morgan who knew what Christmas meant in 1933.

Have you ever heard the song?



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  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    December 19, 2020 at 8:39 am

    Rooney, would you agree with me that the photo of the street scene in Murphy shows 1940s model automobiles, not 1930s? Old men tend to notice such details. Of course, old men can be wrong.

  • Reply
    July 27, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I have sung this song on many holidays. One of the best American tunes ever written. Also his version of Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair is fantastic.

  • Reply
    December 17, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    This is a wonderful story, about a wonderful song. Good job, girls!

  • Reply
    Carolyn A.
    December 17, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I’ve heard this before, but Chitter and Chatter’s rendition gave me chills up my spine. Their voices blend so well; such high and clear tones. Do they sing in a choir? If they don’t, they should. Just beautiful!
    Thanks for sharing the story of how the song came to be. What a great piece of history. xxoo

  • Reply
    Judith Richards Shubert
    December 17, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Tipper, what a great job by Chitter and Chatter! I have loved that song for as long as I can remember and I’m 66 years old. My grandfather (a true Irish gent) used to sing it to us three girls. And we lived far away from Murphy – in a little town called Mineral Wells, Texas! How good music does travel.

  • Reply
    December 16, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    How sweet of them to do it; although tell them your open mic chef friend said to SMI:)le, they look like they are being tortured by you… I am not sure if I have heard this song…and of course I praise you for giving me information, feed me all you want!
    Oh and btw, you can come drop by my way anytime!

  • Reply
    December 16, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Yes, I have heard the song and I love it. I’m so glad you shared the history of how it came to be.

  • Reply
    Julie at Elisharose
    December 16, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I have sung this song as long as I can remember. It has always been one of my favorites. It has such a haunting melody. Loved your girls version of it.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    December 15, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    The song is always one of our favorites at Christmastime. We have a large Christmas collection and it is often among the sets. Like most Christmas hymns, I know we should remember them all year ’round. It’s beautiful done by large choirs and equally touching when sung by your girls.
    I’m glad you told us the story about the song’s origins.

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    December 15, 2009 at 11:32 am

    BTW…think I told you before my granny was a Morgan and a preachers daughter too..All the Morgans from those parts seemed to be preachers.

  • Reply
    Sallie Covolo
    December 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

    How Beautiful Tipper…Your girls are just wonderful. I have heard the song before but never such a beautiful rendition.

  • Reply
    December 15, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Annie-Ive read that Niles went back to try to find Annie Morgan later-but never found her.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    December 15, 2009 at 7:19 am

    I have always loved this song and your girls certainly did it well. It’s not an easy song to sing. I wonder what happened to young Annie Morgan.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Great job, Chitter and Chatter! Beautiful voices!
    Tipper, I’ve not heard that one either. But I DO like it.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    What a neat story! It’s a beautiful song, but a little sad. I have several recordings of it.

  • Reply
    Nancy Simpson
    December 14, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I love this song and love hearing your daughters sing it.
    Merry Christmas

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    December 14, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Tipper: The girls did a great job singing a fairly hard song without music. Congrats on a very nice job on a song that I certainly do remember.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    December 14, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I learned this song as a junior camper at Camp Junalaska back in the mid-fifties. The music counselor — a beautiful young woman named Dolores Dollar — had the voice of an angel and she taught us this haunting melody.

  • Reply
    My Carolina Kitchen
    December 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Tipper, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song. Your girls are darling singing for us. It was fun to see the old pictures of Murphy.

  • Reply
    Nancy M.
    December 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Wow, I’m the only one who hasn’t heard this song! The girls did an awesome job with it!

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Hey Tipper,
    I love that song. We use to sing it in choir at church.
    I didn’t know you lived in Murphy. We use to pass thru there a lot traveling to the Smokeys from GA.
    We love that Nanhala gorge area. It’s one of my all time favorite drives. Lucky you!

  • Reply
    Catherine Seiberling Pond
    December 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Oh I love this Christmas tune and always have, long before we ever moved to southern Appalachia. Thank you for this! (Another favorite, but not Christmas, is WHAT WONDROUS LOVE IS THIS)
    Merry, merry!

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I heard this song for the first time many years ago when I worked in a clothing store at Christmas time. They had a Christmas album playing by Barbra Streisand and this song was on it. I’ve loved it ever since then, but my favorite version is the one by Vanessa Williams.

  • Reply
    Lonnie L. Dockery
    December 14, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Tipper for that one I just had to break my silence!! I first heard that song in the Philippines. I have heard and enjoyed it many times since, but had no idea it was written in/about Murphy!!!
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    It is one of my favorite songs of Christmas, and I like it even better hearing it sung by your girls! You must be so very proud of them, Tipper – they are so very talented and using it well.
    Sarah 😉

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    December 14, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    I’m sure you probably know this but Jack Niles spent a good bit of time at the Folk School and in Murphy as he accompanied Doris Ulmann on her photographic studies of Appalachia (early 1930’s). Anna can fill you in on the details. We have a good many pctures. Keep up the good work and Merry Christmas.

  • Reply
    December 14, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    One of my favorites actually and now I know the back story. Thanks Tipper and thanks for sharing your two girls doing such a sweet rendition. Brightened my day it did.

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