“‘The trail,’” dictated Wimsey [to journalist Salcombe Hardy], “‘breaks off at the crucial point. How did the razor get into the hands of Paul Alexis? If once I could be satisfied of that, the answer might at once set at rest all my doubt. If Paul Alexis can be proved to have bought the razor, I shall consider the suicide theory to have been proved up to the hilt. But until that missing link in the chain of evidence is reconstructed, I shall hold that Paul Alexis was foully and brutally murdered, and I shall spare no efforts to bring the murderer to the judgment he has so richly deserved.’ How's that, Sally?”
“Not too bad. I can work that up into something. I shall add, of course, that you, knowing the enormous circulation of the Morning Star, are relying on the wide publicity it will give to this statement to etcetera, etcetera. I might even get them to offer a reward.”
“Why not? Anyway, pitch it to ’em hot and strong, Sally.”
“I will—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. Between you and me, would you be satisfied it was suicide if the reward was claimed?”
“I don’t know,” said Wimsey. “Probably not. In fact, I am never satisfied.”
Dorothy L. Sayers: Have His Carcase (1932), chap. XI
|SOURCE: scan of Frontispiece of vol. 1 of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (2nd Ed.), collected by Cecil J. Sharp, “including thirty-nine Tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell” (1932)|
The “counties in which the songs were collected” (and only these) are shown by their borders; otherwise, only state borders are indicated. The 1000’ contour line is given in much more detail, zig-zagging to reveal several distinct ridges. The story told by that more detailed contour line surely regards the remoteness of the locations in which Sharp collected his specimens: a distance that may not appear very far on the map might be separated by a considerable difference in elevation with few passable routes. Indeed, absent from the maps in both editions is any indication of road access, even between the few cities marked. In his introduction Sharp emphasizes that his journeys took him into very remote locations; consequently, the texts gathered in those places are relics of a tradition that has persisted and developed apart from the increasingly urbanized world down the hill.
At the same moment that Sharp and Karpeles were finishing their journeys up and down the Appalachian hills, a Kentucky boy who would have been particularly interested in their endeavors was “over there” in France. Indeed, from his wartime experience John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) eventually published a book of soldier songs which, even with its texts somewhat sanitized, still merits its title, The Songs my Mother Never Taught Me (1928). Returning after the war, Niles was fascinated by the findings of Sharp, Campbell, and Karpeles—and by the burgeoning interest in folk music generally. He set about to find some treasures of his own.
“Satisfied?” asked Hardy, as Wimsey returned from the police-station. He had telephoned his story to Town and was absorbing a little refreshment after his labours.“I ought to be,” replied his lordship. “The only thing that worries me, Sally, is that if I’d wanted to invent a story to fit this case, that is exactly the story I should have invented.”
|SOURCE: scan (p. 49) from a field notebook of John Jacob Niles, |
preserved among his papers at the University of Kentucky;
this image is taken from from Ron Pen,
I Wonder as I Wander: the Life of John Jacob Niles (2010).
Here’s an example of something that clearly is not comfortably finding its way into notation. (Apologies for the comparatively low-resolution of the scan—but I don’t think that will prevent anyone from following the rest of this post.) It shows a page of one of Niles’s notebooks, and purports to be his earliest attempts to notate the song “I wonder as I wander,” in Murphy, North Carolina, on July 16, 1933 (starting about one-third of the way down the page). The two following pages have further attempts. Ron Pen, who was the Director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, has probably given more sustained attention to these pages than anyone else in the world, and has pieced together a narrative of what these tidbits reveal about Niles’s compositional process. Yes, I said it: compositional. While the inspiration of this song came out of the mouth of another (Niles noted down: “singing of a girl who calls herself Annie Morgan about 16 or maybe younger, very pretty—very unwashed”), whatever he heard Morgan sing was radically transformed before Niles published the song. As Pen recounts, Niles’s compositional sketches from late September and early October 1933 gradually accumulate two further stanzas, and several different versions of the tune. Those pages also have notes like “Carl E[ngel] will not take it this way (the ending is wrong).” Engel was Niles’s publisher at G. Schirmer, and he himself wasn’t above a little textual meddling if it would make a better product in the end. The textual trail doesn’t just grow cold at July 1933, it is non-existent; a better metaphor would be a spring emerging from the soil, flowing forth with no obvious source. Yet I have no problem regarding “I wonder as I wander” as an Appalachian folk-song, as it flows out of a(n extrapolated) tradition, even though it is actually the calculated artistic product of John Jacob Niles in dialogue with his publisher. In the memorable words of Thomas Dunhill, “let us disabuse ourselves of the idea that a folk-song is a song written by nobody and arranged by Cecil Sharp” (p. 246).
There is a pretty good chance you have heard Niles’s song:
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,How Jesus the savior did come for to dieFor poor on’ry sinners like you and like I;I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
It often shows up on Christmas concerts in all sorts of arrangements, particularly for choirs. And it’s a good tune, often described as “haunting.” The tune is unusual: all four phrases begin with the same sequence of notes, but each phrases ends differently; the last phrase has both the highest and lowest pitches of the melody, with what is perhaps an unexpected final note—unresolved, lingering, making the silence which must eventually follow it seem poignant indeed. About twenty years ago when I heard the new tune by Swiss composer Carl Rütti, I was puzzled: as far as I’m concerned, the original tune was the best part. Why throw it out?
The first three lines of the lyric seem to stem directly from the encounter in Murphy, NC, but possibly not the repeat of the first line as the last line of the stanza came from Annie Morgan. (Niles failed to continue that pattern in his other stanzas, which I think that is a weakness.) The subject/object confusion of “like you and like I” at least provides a rhyme, but in my mind’s ear I can still hear my father’s audible wince anytime he heard that sung. (He always had a red pen in his pocket, and I can remember him adding proofreader’s marks to Christmas letters sent by friends and relations. You can take the professor out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of some professors.) The strongest line is the very first: not just the near rhymes of wonder and wander, but under too. Nothing else in the lyric rises so high. And I note that nothing in the first stanza really defines this as a Christmas song; but Niles and Engel surely knew it would be more marketable as such. And so it was published as an “Appalachian Carol” in Niles’s anthology Songs of the Hill Folk (1934), and then in numerous arrangements thereafter.
Niles eventually realized that his song was a goldmine, but he then had to find ways of claiming authorship of something he had hitherto presented as collected material. I see that the blurb about this song in The Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook strives for some mystical union of composed and folk, even below the explicit attribution “Words and Music by John Jacob Niles”:
|SOURCE: cropped scan of p. 206 of The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981).|
... whatever that means. In that Reader’s Digest collection, the song is grouped in a section of “Christmas Folk Songs and Spirituals.” In The New Oxford Book of Carols—a splendid resource to which I have turned before in these posts—the tune is allocated to the “Traditional Carols” section, not the “Composed Carols.” Yet I think we could make a pretty good case that some items in the “Composed Carols” are far less composed than this one. (“In dulci jubilo,” anyone?) Wasn’t it Will Rogers who said something like All music is folk music. I never heard no horse sing? (Probably not. Whoever it was, we get the point.)
The problem with this question of attribution is that, rather like the boy who cried “wolf,” the deception involved in “I wonder as I wander” makes it hard to trust anything that Niles has claimed anywhere else. He said that he paid Annie Morgan six quarters to sing the song a few times as he tried to write it down, and Pen believes that one can see those efforts on the pages of the field notebook. In any case, the $1.50 Morgan received was nothing compared to the profits that Niles brought in by appropriating her unattributed idea. Pen quotes Ellen Steckert’s perceptive remark: “to have discovered the natural gem was then far better than to admit to having produced it artificially” (p. 156).
|(Eeyore knows all there is to know |
about not being satisfied.)
SOURCE: Illustration by E. H. Shepard;
scan taken from The Project Gutenberg
e-book of Winnie-the-Pooh.
|SOURCE: scan of contents page|
|SOURCE: scan of pp. 126–27 of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928).|
|SOURCE: screenshot from the film, borrowed here from https://creepycatalog.com/true-story-movie-fargo/|