The plaintive yet hopeful American folk tune Wayfaring Stranger, which we explore in this week’s Saturday Soundtrack, has long been a personal favorite. The Bluegrass Situation notes that some historians “have traced its genesis to the 1780s, others, the early 1800s. Depending on who you’re talking to the song may be a reworked Black spiritual, a lifted native hymn, or even a creation of nomadic Portuguese settlers from the southern Appalachian region.”
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger / a-traveling through this world of woe, / and there’s no sickness, toil or danger / in that bright world to which I go. / I’m going there to see my Father, / I’m going there no more to roam; / I’m just going over Jordan, / I’m just going over home;
At one level Wayfaring Stranger is clearly a gospel song. You will occasionally hear it in churches, with this arrangement for choral group by Alice Parker — sung here by the choir at St. Alban’s parish in Washington — near the top of my list. It is also a standard in churches that use shape note singing, as heard below at the second Ireland Sacred Harp convention, in March 2012. *
But the song has lasted and reached so many because the more secular roots music world has taken it — and the story of walking through the trials of this world — for its own. For many, the definitive rendition is from the Roses in the Snow album by Emmylou Harris.
Emmylou’s aching vocals juxtaposed against the late Tony Rice‘s jazz-like guitar stylings and the wails of Jerry Douglas’ dobro all come together for a marvelous offering that has stood the test of time.
Others have also put their stamp on this classic. Let’s begin with some icons.
Johnny Cash’s recording of the song came out in his late period, when his voice was even more ragged yet in many ways more poignant. BGS says, “This song, which appears on Cash’s 2000 album American III: Solitary Man, perfectly captures the mortality that infused much of the Man In Black’s latter period recordings” and I agree.
Doc Watson‘s interpretation contains a few touches that clearly make it Doc’s music (like the southern pronunciation of Jordan and a reworking of some of the standard lyrics). This was just released on Life’s Work: A Retrospective, the new 101 track collection that celebrates the life, music and enduring influence of the iconic guitar virtuoso.”
The tune takes on a different texture when performed with old-time banjo.
For my money, Rhiannon Giddens has one of the best interpretations of Wayfaring Stranger. She performed this, with the remarkable Phil Cunningham on the accordion, as part of a BBC Northern Ireland program. Note how she stays on one chord throughout. This is one of what Giddens calls “the old songs.”
BGS has two choices among their top-twenty versions with old-time banjo accompaniment: Natalie Merchant and David Eugene Edwards.
“Former 10,000 Maniacs’ vocalist Natalie Merchant unfurled a hypnotic version of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ on her 2003 traditionals album The House Carpenter’s Daughter.”
“16 Horsepower/Wovenhand singer David Eugene Edwards has made ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ one of his signature songs, with a version of the track appearing on the 16 Horsepower album Secret South as well as the 2003 Jim White documentary-adventure Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus.“
Jack White of the White Stripes also takes an old-time approach with the song.
I know dark clouds will gather over me, / I know my way is rough and steep; / yet beauteous fields lie just before me / where souls redeemed their vigils keep. / I’m going there to see my Mother, / she said she’d meet me when I come; / I’m only going over Jordan, / I’m only going over home.
Tiff Merritt has an aching rendition stripped down to the simplicity of just her guitar. I especially like the calling out of each word when she gets to the phrase “meet me when I come.”
Once again, from BGS:
“Knowing the tragic story of American singer Eva Cassidy’s short life adds a sad edge to this mellifluous rendition from the Eva By Heart album which was released after her death in 1996.“
I want to wear a crown of glory, / when I get home to that bright land; / I want to shout salvation’s story / in concert with that heavenly band. / I’m going there to see my Savior, / to sing his praise forever more; / I’m going over Jordan, / I’m only going over home.
The song also appears on the big screen.
In addition, the 2000 film Songcatcher includes Wayfaring Stranger in its soundtrack. Cowpunk singer Maria McKee — who interpreted the song on the soundtrack — performs it here in an absolutely stunning performance on David Letterman, with Stuart Duncan playing the mournful fiddle fills.
Finally, the tune has always lent itself to instrumental improvisation.
Sam Bush, Bobby Hicks, and Alison Brown play a lovely instrumental arrangement in a concert at Harvard, Alison Brown’s alma mater. Hicks plays a soulful fiddle that cries and aches, Brown finds new tempos and chord changes as only a jazz-influenced banjo player can, and Bush … well he’s just Sammy. Amazing as always.
We’ll end with the guitar player who opened this Soundtrack. Fronting his own band, Tony Rice takes the introduction into places where no one has gone before. Then he is joined by his bandmates who explore the musical possibilities associated with traveling through this world of woe.
While listening to these different interpretations of Wayfaring Stranger, I kept thinking about the phrase that ends each chorus, which is some version of “I’m just going over home.” In that simple, poetic line, the song speaks to that belief I have that death is not the end but just a passage. I suspect that same hope for many — no matter one’s religious beliefs — helps keeps the song fresh to this day.
More to come…
*As noted in the comments to another shape note singing, “the first time through is sung using solfege. Each voice part is singing not the words but rather the names of the scale, la, sol, do. Even more important is that the music they are reading from is written using shape notes. Each tone of the scale has a corresponding note head shape. (re = cup, mi = diamond, fa = flag etc.) A person can see the shape of the note and know what note to sing based on the shape. Since you learned the notes on the first read thru because you sang the solfege, now in the second time thru you can sing the words!”