While I’m still technically on vacation and will be on a transatlantic flight on Friday, I had a burst of inspiration and had to write this one up a little early.
The Wayfaring Stranger song is an old American folk song that has been passed around the bluegrass, western, country western, folk and rock music scene for over 100 years. I’m unable to confirm an exact date of origin or an author, but the Bluegrass Situation says:
“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.”
That’s quite a variety of origins, if you ask me. No matter, the song has stuck with American communities of faith in their settlement and migration experiences. The song itself can be reworked into many different genres and contexts as it is simply about a narrator longing to end a life of toil and go on to the afterlife where his family resides.
Here are some of the more interesting versions that I’ve found that put a unique social and historical stamp on the interpretation of the song.
Johnny Cash (2000)
If I had to choose one version as the standard, it would be the Johnny Cash version. This particular recording was taken later in his career, and his voice carries that sense of age and weariness. Anyone want to fight me on it? Too bad. I don’t care.
Joan Baez (1969)
A legend of music for social justice, folk singer Joan Baez recorded a version of Wayfaring Stranger in 1969. It is from her album “David’s Album” which she recorded for her husband David Harris who was about to be imprisoned for draft resistance in the Vietnam war era.
Jack White (2003)
Jack White, a musician I love but wish he wouldn’t talk so we’d never know how much a jerk he was, recorded a version for the Civil War era romantic drama Cold Mountain, which he appeared in. I’m not an expert on music from the Civil War era, but it seems to me Jack made a point of making it sound like something that was authentic to the era. I’ve never seen the film, but the longing of soldiers to return to a physical home is a common theme of art about that era. While the song is clearly about dying, I can see it being about both death and a nostalgia for a pre-war existence.
Ed Sheeran (2011)
British singer song writer recorded this one take song using loops. An interesting method. But to me his version feels empty. He’s just singing an old song in his British pop artist vocals, no appreciation for the history and emotion. Ughhhh British cultural appropriation of American folk music, amirite?
Alex Boye (2014)
An incredibly talented London-born musician of African origin, Alex Boye has pushed his own unique brand of blending modern pop with African instruments and rhythm specifically for the YouTube crowd. Energetic and creative, he sometimes goes into dramatic territory. Especially with this song where he adds an incredible violinists and an African chorus while giving us sweeping vistas. To imagine a song about hardship and longing for death in an African context I think is a fantastic way to build new understandings, but Alex isn’t trying to turn it into a lecture. He’s just singing his song, and us social theorists can unpack it all by ourselves without ruining the show. If anyone recognizes the language Aleis singing in besides English, let me know.
Interestingly, there is also a video of Alex performing the song on a evangelical worship music show called “Hour of Power” where the song is listed as a “hymn”.
Other than the Johnny Cash version, Neko Case is my favorite.