By John Jacob Niles
“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, cooking, 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.” –John Jacob Niles
“I Wonder As I Wander” was first performed by John Jacob Niles on December 19, 1933 at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.
Source: “Folk Inspiration: John Jacob Niles on collecting, composing and performing his classic folk songs,” www.john-jacob-niles.com
What does “on’ry” mean in “I Wonder As I Wander”?
Source: English Language & Usage
During a running debate or whether “I Wonder as I Wander” qualifies as a Christmas Carol, I looked up the lyrics. The first verse:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour 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 was surprised to hear that a fragmentary version of the song was heard in 1933 in North Carolina, and then transcribed by John Jacob Niles (who paid $1.75 in silver quarters).
‘I Wonder As I Wander,’ Mahalia Jackson
I’m curious about the contraction on’ry in line three. Since it originates in the U.S., I’m inclined to believe it means ornery (stubborn). (This would require the deletion of the post-vocalic r as well as the unstressed vowel in the second syllable.)
A definition of ornery traces it back to “ordinary.”
There are not many references to the contraction, but a 1973 Waylon Jennings album is entitled Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean. I believe that this usage, also, is pointing toward ornery.
So, are you and I ornery, ordinary, or something else? If we’re ornery, has the meaning shifted between Niles’s usage in 1933 and Waylon Jennings’ usage all these years later?
‘I Wonder As I Wander,’ Barbra Streisand
“Ornery” in the sense of “mean” or “irascible”, which is that in the Waylon Jennings song, was a word distinct from “ordinary” by the middle of the 19th century. But the ballad version is “ordinary,” heavily elided to fit the meter. – StoneyB Nov 30 ’13
So in 1933, “ordinary” => “ornery” => “or’ny” ==> mean (average, common). In 1973, “ornery” => “or’ny” ==> mean (angry, irascible). They start and end at the same concept, but the concepts shifted. – rajah9 Dec 1 ’13
I think not. Long before 1933 “ornery” was an independent word having only a historical connection with “ordinary.” That word is is still alive in Jennings’ 1973 recording. But what JJN recorded in 1933 was the same pronunciation of “ordinary” which evolved sixty or seventy years earlier into “ornery”. – StoneyB Dec 1 ’13
Caveat “It is quite widely accepted in the academic community that Niles’s material is unreliable. A number of songs, including some very lovely ones, that he claimed to have “collected” are known to have been written by him. Some he claims to have found in fragmentary form (“I Wonder as I Wander” for example), others he wrote from scratch (“Venezuela”). None of the scholars with whom I exchange information take his Ballad Book seriously.”( Sandy Paton) So you have to entertain the possibility that “on’ry” meant ordinary, because Niles needed a 2-syllable word and couldn’t come up with one. – Airymouse
‘I Wonder As I Wander,’ Cambridge Singers
In the most literal sense, the two previous answers are correct: “on’ry” here is almost certainly meant to be a contraction for “ordinary.”
However, I think an important piece of background is being missed here. If you read the story of that song, it was transcribed from a song sung by the daughter of an itinerant preacher in far west North Carolina. If we can assume this preacher (and his daughter) would have tried to stick to his own dialect area, this song was almost certainly written by an Appalachian English speaker, and intended for an audience of fellow Appalachian English speakers.
Given this, I don’t think “ornery” should be dismissed. This is an important word in Appalachian culture. According to the etymologies I’ve been able to dig up, it originated as a contraction for “ordinary”, just like you see here in this 1933 song.
What this means is that at some point (presumably back when it was merely a contraction), they were in fact the same word. One nuance a lot of folks miss is that “ornery” is typically used affectionately. People of Appalachian heritage will use it for themselves or their relatives with pride. One could argue that being ornery is an important part of Appalachian self image. So if you take “ordinary” to mean “ordinary Appalachian,” the meanings aren’t really all that separated even today. In simple terms, an “ordinary” person is supposed to be “ornery.”
So it is quite possible that both words were intended.