A Musical Lament: History of the Song Wayfaring Stranger

by:NUTAKE     2020-11-05
Among the most often-sung, often-recorded songs of all time is one of the most poignant. Its lyrics haunt listeners to this day: I am a poor wayfarin' stranger Travelin' through this world of woe, But there's no sickness, toil nor danger In that bright land to which I go. REF: I'm goin' there to see my father; I'm goin' there no more to roam. I'm just a'goin' over Jordan; I'm just a'goin' over home. I know dark clouds will gather o'er me; I know my way is rough and steep. But bounteous fields lie out before me Where souls, redeemed, their vigil keep. REF I'm goin' there to see my mother; She said she'd meet me when I come. I'm just a'goin' over Jordan; I'm just a'goin' over home. Music historians concur Wayfaring Stranger originated at least two centuries ago. Who composed it? No one knows. The Song's Possible Genesis Early publishers of Wayfaring Stranger extracted it from America's southern Appalachian culture. Was it born there? If not, how did it come there? Most European immigrants who settled in that region were from the British Isles and Germanic states. It follows logically that the song, or fragments of it, may have crossed the Atlantic, perhaps prior to the American Revolution (1775-1783). Some researchers have speculated the song could be rooted in Melungeon tradition. The Melungeons were a mixed-lineage, gypsy-like group; it seems feasible they would have lamented in song their eternal wanderings. Other theorists point out that the burgeoning African slave population in the American South is known to have given the world numerous enduring folk and spiritual songs. Was Wayfaring Stranger among their contributions? For many colonists, struggle, danger and frequent relocation were realities of life. Wayfaring Stranger spread widely, from worship gatherings to farm fields to wilderness roads and trails. From Word of Mouth to Publication Bishop Richard Allen, a freed slave and founder of the A.M.E. Church, is believed to have been first to publish the lyrics and music in 1816. Variations of the song subsequently were included in different shape-note collections and hymnals. Since that era, Wayfaring Stranger has been performed and recorded by countless musicians in diverse settings: folk, pop, choral, country and both traditional and contemporary gospel. It has been sung to different melodies. The song was natural for inclusion in the American folk revival repertoire of the late 1950s and early '60s. The venerated Burl Ives particularly embraced it, recording it as early as 1944 and making it the title of both his autobiography and his radio show. The many revival artists to adapt it included Peter, Paul & Mary; Joan Baez; Pete Seeger; The Limeliters; Doc Watson; and Gibson & Camp. Mid-'50s pop performers included Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jo Stafford and Frankie Lane. Among country and bluegrass recorders were Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Reed, Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, and Tony Rice. Latter-day performers who've recorded the song include Eva Cassidy, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and Anonymous4. European performers to record Wayfaring Stranger range from Tom Fox of England to Selfmindead of Sweden. It has been enfolded into Americana-flavored classical compositions and was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It also has been included in film soundtracks. Alternate Lyrics Seemingly infinite word substitutions and supplemental lines and verses have broadened the song during the past 200 years. The simple poetic structure and straightforward theme make Wayfaring Stranger easy for any singer to modify. It has been speculated that the number of variations is in the thousands. One example: I want to wear a crown of glory When I get home to that good land. I want to sing salvation's story In concert with the blood-washed band. REF: I'm goin' there to meet my Savior, To sing His praise forevermore. I'm only goin' over Jordan; I'm only goin' over home. Another: I want to wear that crown of glory When I get there to that bright land. I want to shout down Satan's story In concert with the blood-washed band. REF: I'm going there to see my brothers; They said they'd meet me when I come. . . . Future recording artists likely will continue to enhance the legacy of 'Wayfaring Stranger.' Download a performance of wayfaring stranger. More free music downloads are available at Tomfox.net.
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