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Origins of America's favorite Christmas carols

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John Sullivan Dwight, cofounder of the Harvard Musical Society, translated the 19th-century French carol, "Cantique de Noël," known in English as "O Holy Night." Harvard was also home to the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who taught there, and on Christmas Day 1863, while still grieving his wife's death in a home fire in 1861 and his son's injury in the Civil War, he wrote a poem he called "Christmas Bells."

Clancy says: "Longfellow heard church bells pealing with the good news of Christmas, causing his demeanor to change." Indeed, Longfellow's poem concludes famously: "With peace on earth, good-will to men!" Set to music, we know it today as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

The folk carol "I Wonder as I Wander" brought Clancy to the town square in Murphy, N.C., where in July 1933, a young girl had sung without accompaniment at her father's revivalist meeting. In the audience that day was John Jacob Niles, a folk singer and collector of folk songs. Niles paid the girl to sing the song for him and captured several lines of verse, to which he soon added additional lyrics and music.

In 1934 Niles published "I Wonder as I Wander" in his volume "Songs of the Hill-Folk." Three-quarters of a century later, Clancy's video camera captured the words of longtime Murphy Mayor William Hughes: "It's a beautiful melody.... You can hear the voice of Appalachia."

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