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Throwback Thursday: The Wayfaring Stranger Song

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Joan Baez and her husband David Harris with their son after his release from prison for draft resistance, 1970

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.

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  • GeoX

    I like the 16 Horsepower version. Very stark.

    For most of us who were in US elementary schools in the eighties, the first version we heard (without knowing what it was) was the bleepy rendition that played when you got to Independence Rock in Oregon Trail.

    • I did not know that! What a neat bit of trivia!

      • Pat

        Juvie must not have been too harsh in those days. Doesn’t look like the kid lost any weight at all. Nonetheless, it’s pretty tough to jail a toddler for protesting the draft!

        (Joan Baez and her husband David Harris with their son after his release from prison for draft resistance, 1970)

        • I needed this explanation. I had no idea why you guys were making fun of me.

    • bs

      +16 HP

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    If he’s Nigerian, it’s most likely Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. Those are just the three most spoken languages in Nigeria though.

    Hausa has the most speakers, but the Nigerians I’ve encountered have all been Yoruba or Igbo, so the migration patterns might be different.

  • AnthonyAB

    I would never spend energy convincing people *not* to listen to Johnny Cash, but I don’t see how the Bill Monroe version can’t be considered The Standard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI92oDdXazg

    And for something totally different – 70’s gospel version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiSQGWnkfJ4

    • There can be only one truth!!!

    • Anna in PDX

      Re Bill Monroe, was coming to post that. I think Johnny Cash would have agreed, actually. :)

      Thanks for that gospel version!

  • how_bout_never

    Things must have been really bad for the draft age to be that low back then.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      LOL! I came to comment on the same thing. Great pedants think alike, I suppose.

      • Pat

        I put my comment where I was sure Christa would see it….

  • Bloix

    For the history of American folk songs, mudcat.org is a really helpful resource.

    This song was closely identified with Burl Ives, who used it as his signature song. It was the name of his 1940s radio show and he used it in the titles of first album, Okeh Presents The Wayfaring Stranger, and two later albums on major labels, The Wayfaring Stranger and The Return of the Wayfaring Stranger.

  • TBplayer

    One of my all-time favorite songs in any genre. I remember singing it at camp, even.

    I agree that Johnny Cash’s version is splendid, but there are lots of great versions.

    One I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Natalie Merchant’s version on her House Carpenter’s Daughter album.

  • rm

    My favorite voice for this song is Ralph Stanley‘s.

    I also like the jazz/klezmer/bluegrass version of “Wayfaring Stranger” by The Wayfaring Strangers, with Lucy Kaplansky singing. Elsewhere on that album, Ralph Stanley sings “Man of Constant Sorrow” with jazz piano, and it is so much better than that combo has any business being.

    • That sounds AMAZING

    • DAS

      “klezmer/bluegrass version of “Wayfaring Stranger””

      I actually have wondered about a possible Jewish origin to the melody. There is a Shabbat song (forget the name) that has a similar “feel” in its melody.

      • rm

        At the risk of writing about stuff I do not really understand . . . Celtic/Appalachian music uses a pentatonic scale that is also found in many, many musical traditions worldwide. That’s why fusions of American folk songs with African, Central Asian, Chinese, and various European musical forms work so well. I don’t know anything about Jewish liturgical music and suspect it is more complicated. As far as I can google, it seems like klezmer uses a bewildering variety of musical scales and forms, like jazz.

        However, even though I barely understand it, I would not be at all surprised if you are right.

        I just remembered reading about the great influence of Jewish religious music on Louis Armstrong. There is a complex web out there I wish I knew more about.

  • royko

    Joan Baez and her husband David Harris with their son after his release from prison for draft resistance, 1970

    Wow, they really were drafting young in 1970. Brave lad.

    (I love a good dangling modifier.)

    • rm

      This is funny no matter how many people repeat the same joke.

      • I wasn’t getting it! I thought you were all weird!!!

        • JustRuss

          Well, we are…but that’s beside the point.

  • Cool Bev

    An immigrant once asked me if Americans can understand the feeling of not belonging to the country where they live, and not to any other country either. I told her about “alienation”, the existential situation we all find our selves in, lost in a land, a world not of our making. I used this song and other spirituals as examples – the home across the river of Jordan.

    She did not get it, and probably didn’t appreciate my comparison of her (real, severe) struggles to the universal, metaphysical ones I was talking about. Still, it’s true. We are all strangers in this world.

    • rm

      Af-Am Lit. Some of this American spiritual tradition came from real, severe struggles.

  • Bri2k

    Those are all wonderful selections and it made my day to see this post about one of my favorite folk songs.

    Looks like I get to be the one to bring up the excellent Rhiannon Giddens version:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1Z4PAZX9Bs

    Fun fact: Joan Baez’s son Gabriel (kid in the pic) was the drummer in her backing band last time I saw her in concert.

    • TBplayer

      Just discovered her fairly recently. Truly an amazing musician.

      I think her incredible versatility might actually hurt her a bit (career-wise, not musically). On one song she might channel the young Joan Baez, on the next Bessie Smith, and the next Patsy Cline…
      Likewise the song selection on the solo CD I have, Tomorrow is My Turn, is all over the map.

      I find that kind of thing fascinating, actually, but it makes her hard to categorize, which puts off some people who like their artists easier to pigeon hole.

  • Bronze

    I found this little version, from an independent animated series involving Mexican and American Folk Tales a few years ago, and I’ve loved it ever since. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6SZgUVTb4Q

    I think the three voices really sell it. The voice acting of the series it’s in? Not quite as good

  • Downpuppy

    Red Molly does an OK version – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzQjccr8wQA

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    My favorite version is by Trace Adkins (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPpV1Wcsgk0)

  • Nat

    Er, how about the first cut on the first H. P. Lovecraft album….

  • dn

    I like the a capella version by Clarence Ashley on Old Time Music At Clarence Ashley’s (the Folkways album that also featured Doc Watson’s recorded debut; a great introduction to really raw old-time music).

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