Artists You Should Know: John Jacob Niles

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Tomorrow I will once again do the Christmas show 9-12 noon on KCRW, 89.9 fm and KCRW.COM.  One of the songs I’ll feature is a rather obscure song called “I Wonder as I Wander”.   It was inspired by a song Niles heard in a street fair, which he then adapted into the song we know today.  It has been recorded by Joan Baez and by Cathy Berberian, who sang Luciano Berio’s concert version from Berio’s brilliant Folk Songs album for Deutsche Grammophon.  Benjamin Britten also used the song in his Christmas song cycle A Ceremony of Carols.

I once read that the song was considered inflammatory and un-Christmas like because it referred to poor people;  the song was first recorded in the midst of the Depression in 1933.   Niles was even called a communist by some.   Niles adapted many folk songs, the most famous being “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, made famous by many singers,  the most famous of whom may be Nina Simone.

The version I’ll play is by singer Anne Hills from an obscure lp  on Hogeye records called “On this Day Earth Shall Ring”.  The original album was reissued on the cd pictured here.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 heav’n for to sing,

He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

Here is Nina Simone’s arrestingly beautiful version of Niles’ “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”