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We all know our favorite holidays songs. But do you know where they came from?
No one knows for sure the plantation where it was written, and today the Coffin Point Plantation is the only one on the island that remains. At one time it occupied 1,120 acres and housed 63 slaves. I found the three-story manor house, white with red-roof shingles, down a quiet back road, near the sea.
Built in 1801, it’s a private home now. No one was there. I backed off the veranda and stood on the ample lawn. I sang the song softly to myself and thought of what the peace of Christmas must have meant to a slave.
Murphy, North Carolina
I Wonder as I Wander
The next morning I drove six and a half hours, from St. Helena Island, to Murphy, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains.
In 1933, I had read, the renowned folklorist and folksinger John Jacob Niles happened to be visiting the tiny Appalachian village, intent on collecting and recording traditional songs.
In his unpublished autobiography he wrote of a revivalist preacher’s daughter, who “stepped out to the edge of [a] little platform attached to [her father’s] automobile. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. But in her untutored way, she could sing.
"She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”
Niles, enthralled, asked her to repeat the song and the lyric. She sang it seven times, Niles paying her 25 cents each time.
After the seventh take, he wrote, he had “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material— and a magnificent idea.” From that he composed the haunting carol I Wonder as I Wander.
Niles’s carol is one of my favorites. Murphy was exactly as I had pictured it—the main street ran two blocks. There was an old bank, a drugstore and a town hall where I met the mayor Bill Hughes.
“Sure, I know the song,” he told me. “Everyone here does.” He stood up from his desk. “Come on with me,” he said, and led me down the street. “This is where Niles stood when he first heard the girl sing,” he said, indicating a spot by a fountain.
I thought of Niles’s lyrics, so simple yet so profound. Great beauty needs no adornment, I thought.
The Little Drummer Boy
After a full day of travel to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan, the source of inspiration for the Alfred Burt family carols, I headed east to Concord, Massachusetts, to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where composer Katherine K. Davis is buried.
In 1941, Ms. Davis wrote The Carol of the Drum, known today as The Little Drummer Boy. Davis taught music at Wellesley College. She penned more than 600 songs. It is said she based her famous hymn on an old Czech carol. In a long-ago interview, she said the song “practically wrote itself.”
But it wasn’t an instant hit. In fact, 17 years passed before she got a phone call one day from a friend. “Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on the radio!” she said.
“What carol?” she asked, surprised.