Songs of Joy and Lament (3)

The following is a continued reflection on songs used in worship by the handbell choir directed by Mitchell (Campus Edge’s Emerging Leader).

I Wonder as I Wander (follow link to listen)

Our December piece – “I Wonder as I Wander” – is, to me, a quintessential Advent hymn and perhaps the most contemplative of all the music in this series. The plaintive song starts with the nature of Jesus’s death in the first stanza before moving to Jesus’s birth in second stanza. All three verses contemplate Jesus’s humble and sacrificial nature:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, all in a cow’s stall,
Came wise men and farmers and shepherds and all,
And high from the heavens a star’s light did fall;
The promise of the ages it then did recall.

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 had it, ’cause he was the king.

What words stick out to you? One of my favorites is “the promise of the ages it then did recall,” indicating that this long-prophesied Messiah has finally arrived as indicated by the light of God in the star of the magi. The cosmic truth of this line comes amid the dirty, stinky and inconvenient realty that Jesus was born in a stable. (Compare this with “It Came Upon the midnight Clear”, which says there “shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”)

Like “Wayfaring Stranger” this piece is from Appalachia. The tune and the text were assembled by American folklorist John Jacob Niles in 1933 after he heard it being sung at a revival meeting. In his autobiography he writes

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins. … But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The story goes that Niles had to keep paying the girl for each additional line of the song. Like me meditating on the words, I can only think the Niles was transfixed by this sight and the almost mystical words he was hearing. What sort of scene does this song conjure up for you?

New and Old Stories
These are only some of the things that could be said about these pieces. There are also the wonderful ways in which each arranger captures the music for handbells and the contributions of the composers who devised each melody. Even so, I hope that my reflections on the music will help more fuller appreciation of the music shared above.

– Mitchell Eithun, Ringers of the Kirk, Director

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