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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 18 - "I Wonder As I Wander" by Barbara Streisand - 25 Days of Christmas Angst

I take a lot of pictures of the sky because it is often so
beautiful.  It is wonderful how something so ordinary
and everyday can so often surprise me and make
me appreciate life.
As I was planning this 25 day project, I mentioned it to some friends.  "I Wonder As I Wander" was suggested by one of them when I asked what he thought the saddest Christmas songs were.

I am glad he mentioned it because it would not have come up in my mind or on this list otherwise.

Not only would I not have thought of this song on my own I never would have guessed that there was so much to tell about the song.

John Jacob Niles wrote the song in October 1933 based on a few lines he heard a young girl in Appalachian North Carolina singing. 

Niles paid the girl who sang the lines that inspired this song only a few quarters.  When people started performing it under the assumption that it was a folk song, Niles sued them to collect royalties. 

The story behind this song reminds me of the movie Songcatcher (2000).  This film is mostly fictional though loosely based on the work of an actual musicologist.  It is a unique movie that is romantic in the most sappy way but you don't care because it is done so well.  And the soundtrack is superb.  The film is also available on Netflix streaming (I think I know what I'll be re-watching tonight).     

I have been intrigued by mountain culture since I read The Education of Little Tree in high school.  I did not expect that this song would rekindle that interest.

There are many versions of "I Wonder As I Wander" available.  I prefer the Barbara Streisand version (which you can hear here:  http://youtu.be/lXZM0F30vQI).  Streisand makes some interesting choices in her version. 

First, she keeps the third line of the first stanza as:  "For poor on'ry people like you and like I?"  The word "on'ry" is a point of irritation for me.  I cannot seem to pin down exactly what it means.  Most people seem to interpret it at "ordinary." 

Julie Andrews (listen to her version here:  http://youtu.be/ywQaYDwk0Gw) goes so far as to change the line to:  "For poor simple people like you and like I?"  I can find nothing that indicates that in Appalachian slang "on'ry" is commonly used in a way different from other dialectal slang.  But how does "ornery" make sense in this line?

The dictionary defines "ornery" as:  "bad-tempered and combative."  Marilyn Sue Shank in the glossary that she created to accompany her book, Child Of The Mountains, gives ornery this definition:   "behaving badly."  Another Appalachian slang dictionary gives the word this definition:  "hateful, hard to get along with, stubborn."

Indeed, the prevalence of the word "ornery" in Appalachian dictionaries leads me to believe that "on'ry" is not meant to mean "ordinary."  This makes sense if you take the slightly more mild definition of "behaving badly" rather than "combative" because it is then a simple substitute for "sinner" or "sinning."

Preview the remaining days of angst or review the previous days here:   

Streisand also makes the choice to cut one of the stanzas traditionally in the song:

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.

It is unclear why this cut was made.  With this stanza the song makes much more sense as a Christmas song.  Without it the song seems more fitting for Easter.  Perhaps Streisand wanted to focus on the central question of the song.

For a believer, that question is about how grateful we all should be to Jesus for choosing to die for us.  For me, however, this question recalls the mental turmoil I went through over a decade ago as I started to really think about faith, religion, and belief.

I had a wonderful religious studies professor who took Socrates' idea about an "unexamined life" and applied it to religion.  His conclusion was that any religion, faith, or doctrine that was accepted without critical, rational thought was meaningless.

So, with a different outlook the unintended question asked by this song is, "Why does Jesus' death save me?"  Which brings along with it a whole fleet of other questions like, "'Sin' is so poorly defined; how do I really know when I am sinning?" and "Is time travel involved if my sins today help to nail Jesus to the cross 2000 years ago?"

I have not arrived at this place peacefully, easily, or quickly.  I spent many an hour literally wandering and wondering about these questions.  I spent many hours reading and trying to understand, wandering of a figurative nature.

Struggling with these questions has made me more understanding of the difficulty of living up to any moral ideal.  For a large part of the past fifteen years, I was envious of those who were able to take such comfort from their faith and religious practice.  I admired it but could never really take part in it.

I respect people's wishes to practice a religion and I understand how important those rituals and routines are to many of my friends.  I can appreciate the lessons about how we should live contained in many religious texts.

I see the value in trying to be Christ-like but I have no time or energy to try to be Christian.  I have come to accept that and the fact that I am mostly ordinary and quite often ornery.

I Wonder as I Wander
as performed by Barbara Streisand

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.

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 heaven to sing
He surely could have it, for he was the King

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.


"I Wonder As I Wander"


Glossary for Child Of The Mountains by Marilyn Sue Shank

"Mountain Talk"

"John Jacob Niles"


25 Days Of Christmas Angst
Day Song Download/Purchase Info
18 "I Wonder As I Wander" by Barbara Streisand Buy the full album:

Buy the song:
Streisand asks one of the most enduring and difficult questions (which raises many others) in the most beautiful way. Perhaps this song is better suited to Easter but it seems to have become part of the holiday canon.
17 "The Christmas Song" by She & Him Buy the full album:

Buy the song:
Read my blog post for more about this song.
What is ther to not like about Zooey Deschanel on lead vocals of this slightly depressing holiday classic?
16 "Blue Christmas" by Vince Gill Buy the CD:
Read my blog post for more about this song.
Elvis or Vince Gill?
I recommend buying Vince Gill's Christmas album titled, Breath of Heaven: A Christmas Collection. I have only been able to find it available as a physical CD, however.
15 "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" from How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) Buy the full album:

Buy the song:

Buy the DVD:

Buy the Blu-Ray:

Amazon Instant Video:
Read my blog post for more about this song.
Perhaps The Grinch is just misunderstood, or perhaps he is pure evil.

Click this link to preview the remaining days of angst or review the previous days:  http://www.carneylentz.com/p/25-days-of-christmas-angst.html

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