Appalachian Christmas Folk Tune – Playing with Barre Chords

“I Wonder as I Wander” is a hauntingly beautiful Christmas folk tune from the Appalachian Mountains. It was collected and published by John Jacob Niles. I arranged the song to play it on the mountain dulcimer many years ago.  It is a very unusual song in that it doesn’t seem to fit any of our conventional music keys or modes. It seemed to work best using barre chords.

John Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was a collector of folklore and music in the early 1900’s. He traveled throughout the remote areas of the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia and sought out local residents who told him their stories and music. Niles transcribed their oral songs and kept them for his personal use. Niles was especially interested in ballads which might have parallels in England and Scotland. This folk music collecting was somewhat akin to the work of Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax.  Here is a view of the mountains in Southwestern Virginia where Niles traveled.

John Jacob Niles lectured, taught and performed his music and stories throughout the states. At first, he had no intention of publishing his ballads. He seemed to detest persons who plagiarized and copied his works and who called the music “in the public domain.” But eventually Niles published several works including “The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles.” Niles says he probably conducted over 3000 interviews throughout the years he collected stories; the book has 100 songs. Interestingly, Niles did play a variation of a dulcimer which he constructed and concluded that it originated from a combination of Celtic and English instruments.

I Wonder as I Wander

The song, “I Wonder as I Wander”, was published in another book of song collections, “Songs of the Hill Folks,” published by G. Schirmer, Inc. in 1940.  Niles tells the story that he was at Murphy, North Carolina. A group of evangelicals holding a rally had been run out of town by the police. A young unkept girl, standing by an old car, sang fragments of this beautiful song. Niles had her sing it over and over until he memorized it and paid her a coin each time she sang it. Niles added lines and stanzas to the song first performing it in 1933. It was arranged and published as an individual song in 1934. Some thought this should be an autonomous folk song; but Niles filed lawsuits against that idea and demanded royalties.

Playing the Tune on the Dulcimer

The tune is copyrighted, so this version is for educational purposes only. I suggest that you purchase the actual music from G. Schirmer if you plan to play and perform it other than for personal use. However, for the dulcimer, I have transposed the song to the Key of D and changed the time from 6/8 to 3/4.

The tune has a very “modal” tone and is beautiful to play on the dulcimer. It doesn’t seem to fit into any major or minor key. Some on-line forms suggested the song fits the Aeolian mode. On the dulcimer, this mode begins at the first fret. I did learn from reading these forms that modes and minor keys scales are different based on the number and position of the “tonal” note and also the flatted notes. This quickly gets over my head and you really don’t need all the theory to play the song.

Rather than using a capo, I used a “barre” chord with my fingers as sort of a movable capo. Place your pinky, ring and middle finger on the strings across the fretboard on the melody, middle and bass strings, respectfully. Keep these fingers stationary; it’s easy to move them up and down the fretboard and to add additional notes with your index finger and thumb.

Alternately, you can “barre” all the strings with your pinky finger. This is useful when you want to play additional frets on the bass string as with reverse chords. Just reach up and use your thumb or index finger.

Here’s my arrangement of the song. I used “barre” chords at the first, second and fifth frets for Em, F#m and Bm chords. I used a combination of strumming and picking individual notes. At several places, it is easier to play the melody note on middle string rather than move down to a lower fret on the melody string past the “barre” chord. On the last line, I switched and used the A and A7 chords. No particular reason, just sounded “right” to me. Try the song. It’s beautiful!

These two little corn husk angels remind me of the folk art of the Appalachian mountains.

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