Music can be one of the many joys of this season as we hear familiar songs and carols. Some were composed by highly trained composers and others have more humble origins.
One of my many favorites is “I Wonder As I Wander.” As the story goes, a scholar of folk music, John Jacob Niles, found himself in the small Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina, in 1933. He came upon a modest evangelistic gathering on the outskirts of town. Onto the small platform stepped an unkempt young girl who smiled shyly as she sang:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the savior did come for to die,
For poor ornery people like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”
Moved by the song’s haunting beauty, he paid the girl to repeat it several times so he could transcribe it. He took it with him, extended the lyrics and stanzas, gave her credit, and published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hillfolk. Since then, it’s been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Julie Andrews, Barbara Streisand, Joan Baez, Leontyne Price, Andy Griffin, Linda Ronstadt, Chanticleer, and many others; it’s included in countless hymnbooks and seasonal playlists.
I am drawn to it partly by its melancholy mood and simplicity. Composed by an untrained person living at the fringes of society, it’s like the blues – an expression of life’s hardships created by people who are living hard lives.
And my favorite line is, “…how Jesus the savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I.” I love the word ornery.
There are two possible meanings of “ornery.” Some say it’s just the Appalachian pronunciation of “ordinary,” and many published versions use that option.
That may be correct. But I’m biased toward the other possibility — that it means “ornery” the way I heard that word used as I was growing up. Merriam-Webster’s definition: “Having an irritable disposition: cantankerous; difficult to deal with or control… (as in) ‘an ornery mule’…”
My dad would talk about people being “ornery,” and we knew what he meant. And when you sound it out, it sounds defiant, grumpy, and stubborn. Ornery.
I sometimes feel ornery. We are not supposed to feel that way. We are supposed to always be civil and kind, generous of heart, and looking out for the interest of others. But sometimes we don’t feel like we are supposed to feel. And the carol puts it right out there: the world is full of “poor ornery people like you and like I.”
Thinking about this message and mood led me to page through hymnals looking for other carols which suggest how living in this world can be disheartening:
- “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight…Bid envy, strife, warfare cease..” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel)
- “From our fears and sin release us…” (Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus)
- “…And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world…above its sad and lonely plains they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.” (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
- “…and ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who will along the climbing way with painful steps and slow… “ (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear)
- “No more let sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…” (Joy to the World)
- “’Fear not,’ said he – for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds…” (While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night)
- “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” (We Three Kings)
If you collect these phrases and line them up, you get this: there are times when life can feel like we are living under “gloomy clouds of night,” haunted by “death’s dark shadows,” often having to deal with “envy, strife (and) warfare” as well as “fears and sin;” the world can be a “weary” place” as we make our way on “sad and lonely plains” hearing all these different voices with their “Babel sounds;” under “life’s crushing load” we can feel like our “forms are bending low,” that any progress we make is made with “painful steps and slow;” we have days when we are convinced that “thorns “infest the ground” we walk on, moments come when “dread” seizes our “troubled minds,” and we know that life, at its most difficult, includes times of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying” all leading to “a stone cold tomb.”
Not exactly Christmas Cheer. But life can be tough. No surprise that we get ornery.
Hard as life can be, and no matter how “ornery” we may feel, the gift of Christmas comes to us anyway. That’s what the young girl who created this song knew, and that’s what allowed her to sing it with a shy smile under her sorrows.
“God does not love as we love. God loves as an emerald is green.”
Image: “Sky Over Big Bear,” Shutterstock Photos