Single Song Sunday: Wayfaring Stranger
(white spirituals and the religious origins of modern folk music)
A morning retreat with the worship associate team at our UU church yesterday, a religious education teach-in on songs as tools of social justice, and a scheduled jaunt to check out a church for sale tomorrow to see if it can be transformed into a new home have cast a non-secular sentiment over my long weekend, putting me on the lookout for the spiritual in everything. In response, we’ve gone back five years to resurrect an early Single Song Sunday feature on oft-covered traditional “white spiritual” Wayfaring Stranger, and added a whole second set of versions found and recorded since then from Gregory Paul, Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, folk supergroups Red Horse and Red Molly, and more.
Enjoy all twenty tracks, and if you, too, need a little more spirituality in your life, check out related features on Songs From The Universalist Unitarian Hymnal and Songs of Social Justice for further musings and song.
Through much of recorded history, religion has served communities as both as a community locus and as a carrier of song; as such, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a relationship of sorts between folk music and the church itself. As with any folk form, of course, context matters; to note that several songs commonly associated with Cat Stevens can be found in the Universalist Unitarian hymnal says something very different about both artist and religious community than pointing out that a move to the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Coney Island in the 1940s led to the recent release of a wonderful album of Woody Guthrie-penned Klezmer music.
To note that the folk song Wayfaring Stranger (or sometimes Poor Wayfaring Stranger) was first published in 1816 in the shape note tunebook Kentucky Harmony, which in turn was primarily an expansion of the work of John Wyeth and his two Repositories of Sacred Music, then, is to locate that song in the white spiritual canon — which, in turn, calls us to the American white revivalist movements of the last few centuries, to consider the common threads of a form of folk product which includes The Sacred Shakers, the work of Doc Watson, and many other works and performers with roots in New England, Appalachia, and other American church-based communities.
Though it echoes similar terminology — bluegrass gospel, most obviously — the term “white spiritual” is striking and vivid; to be honest, I’m surprised to find that Google lists only a few uses of the term, most of which seem to be part of classical choral scholarship. The conceit that white audiences had their own spriritual song, which derived its rhythm and subject from their European ancestry, illuminates folk’s origins in a way that is both new and suddenly fitting, creating a parallel path to modernity in stark contrast to the gospel folk which comes to us through african american blues music. Further, such a conceit says much about the context in which music evolved, and traveled, and spoke to and for the “folk”; exploring the term is a fine way to help reshuffle and rethink the origin of many songs which remain at the core of folk music today.
The semiotic implications of the term “white spiritual” do seem apt, when you think about it; so much of the folk which has its roots in the appalachian mountains and stark New England Shakers, after all, is about redemption, framing man’s connection to man in the context of God. And Wayfaring Stranger is an especially interesting example of the white spiritual. Though other white spirituals may be more central to the form — for example, our first Single Song Sunday subject, Amazing Grace — Wayfaring Stranger is notable for being a song which does not as obviously call to its spiritual nature. Which is to say: though both songs ultimately play out the relationship between the internal sinner-self and the spiritual Father, the former is a hymn of the post-redemptive self, less about the more modern folk-as-call-to-complexity and more about morality-play.
But the humble determination of the pre-redemptive self which characterizes the narrative voice of Wayfaring Stranger is not uncommon to the narrative stance of many an old British folk ballad, from the pining lass of Fair William to the besworn folkmaiden and lusty, easily swayed folklad who so often stray, only to regret it, and come back to their God. Meanwhile, the plight of the poor wayfarer remains open and non-specific, an everyman’s resolve pulling us in to folk communion. No wonder the song remains enticing; no wonder we find so many versions to pluck our fruit from.
In practice, whether or not you accept the label of “white spiritual” as applied to a song whose most famous version is in the voice of as haunted and searching a man as Johnny Cash, it is true that there is a certain emotional reverence common to all versions of the song. In fact, circularly, though there are as many ways to worship as there are men, and thus high diversity in the way different folk musicians choose to make Wayfaring Stranger their own, the question of what makes this particular song a white spiritual may be best answered by the consistent care with which all comers take on the song. To explore that commonality, and the variance in sound and tone and tempo that it nonetheless allows, here’s some interesting takes on the song, a vast array of approaches to traditional material from the very big tent that is modern folk.
WAYFARING STRANGER: A COVER LAY DOWN MIX
- Simone Dinnerstein & Tift Merritt: Wayfaring Stranger
(classical piano meets singersongwriter folk from collaboration Night)
- Lucius: Wayfaring Stranger
(haunting dreampop from Hurricane Sandy benefit The Storm Is Passing Over)
- Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson: Wayfaring Stranger
(Mother and daughter traditionalists from Gift)
- Dan Murphy & Granite Glass: Wayfaring Stranger
(oldschool countrygrass from The Outpost and Other Odd Places)
- John Stirratt: Wayfaring Stranger
(cavernous tradfolk from Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Vol. 1)
- Natalie Merchant: Poor Wayfaring Stranger
(delicate neo-tradfolk from The House Carpenter’s Daughter)
- Giant Sand: Wayfaring Stranger/ Fly Me To The Moon
(weary hush-folk from Cash Covered)
Cover Lay Down shares coverfolk celebrations and ethnographic musings throughout the year thanks to the support of donors like you. Coming soon: a mailbag dip for the first covers of 2014. Plus: The Grammys!