Folk song favourites: Wayfaring Stranger

My interest in folk music was inherited from my father. He was no great expert (and no great singer either!), but he knew just what he liked. Two of his favourite performers of folk and traditional songs were Joan Baez and Burl Ives. My last post touched briefly on a memorable track by Baez, so today I’ll say a few words about one of my favourite Burl Ives ballads.

The Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known American folk song, probably dating from the early 19th century. The lyrics were first set down in Joseph Bever’s Christian Songster, published in 1858. They tell the story of a man’s arduous journey through life, and his belief that his lot will improve after death when he will leave his troubles behind him and be reunited with his loved ones.

Folk song lyrics are like the Covid virus, constantly mutating, forever evading capture and control. So what follows isn’t a definitive version, but is nevertheless a reliable guide to The Wayfaring Stranger’s tone and major themes:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan*
I'm only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep

I'm going home to see my mother
And all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

Beautiful, and deeply moving! One day – but not any time soon, I hope – a recording of The Wayfaring Stranger will be played at my funeral, as I embark upon my own final journey.

Burl Ives (1909-95) had a long association with this song. Having stormed out of his Illinois teacher training college in a fit of pique in 1929, Ives became an itinerant singer and musician who travelled across the US scratching a living by performing at small venues and doing odd jobs on the side.

Ives’s success and reputation grew, until in 1942 he was given his own radio show on CBS, playing traditional folk ballads. But the rootless, wandering lifestyle that characterised his early career obviously made a deep impression on the young man, and in memory of those times his show was titled The Wayfaring Stranger. Two years later he released a recording of the song on his album of the same name.

Countless artists have since recorded The Wayfaring Stranger, including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran and Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Jack White, whose character Georgie sings it in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. You can track down all of these covers on YouTube

Perhaps the most surprising interpretation I’ve come across was recorded by a bunch of Norwegians, the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. Scandinavia is not a part of the world that anyone might reasonably expect to spawn a memorable version of a classic American folk ballad, but their recording proves beyond doubt that musical talent is blind to national boundaries.

While Hayde’s rendition balances perfectly Rebekka Nilsson’s plaintive vocals with some superbly atmospheric Appalachian instrumentation, Jos Slovick demonstrates that The Wayfaring Stranger works just as well when sung unaccompanied. His a cappella version, recorded for the 2019 movie 1917 is mournful, and gut-wrenchingly haunting. Definitely one of my favourites.

Great folk songs are capable of endless reinterpretation, each new version adding subtly different dimensions to the core narrative and melody. The Wayfaring Stranger is, in my mind anyway, one of the greatest of them all.

* note: “going over Jordan” = dying and going to heaven / paradise

11 comments

  1. Yeah, Another Blogger · December 29

    Hi. You’re right about this song. It’s a great one. By the way, I remember Ives pretty well, but I never knew his backstory. He had quite a life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · December 30

      Yes, he was what we call over here “a larger than life character” in every sense of that phrase. Interesting guy, for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Paddy Tobin · December 29

    Goodness, you’re going back the years with Joan Baez and Burl Ives. I remember both very well and their music also. Many of these old songs were very sad, mournful affairs, and deeply loved and appreciated here in Ireland. A childhood favourite from Burl Ives was “A Frog went a Courting”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · December 30

      Yes, I can clearly remember singing along to Froggie Went a-Courting with my father. Happy days!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tanjabrittonwriter · December 29

    I only knew of Burl Ives because of some popular Christmas songs he performed, so I’m glad to have learned something new about him as well as about this beautiful song. With you I hope that it will be a looong time before it will be played at your funeral!
    Stay well,
    Tanja

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · December 30

      Thank you Tanja, I fervently share your hope! He was an interesting character, not least because he combined his singing with a decent acting career, including an Oscar winning performance. Multi-talented, and very much part of my life even now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ThoughtsBecomeWords · December 30

    Very moving. My daughter saw the movie version and said the whole cinema was crying. May your New Year be happy and healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ann Mackay · December 30

    I enjoyed the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra – must look for more by them. Thanks! Hope you and yours have a wonderful New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Adele Brand · January 1

    That’s a new folksong for me. I can imagine how the vast North American trails / roads can inspire such lyrics.

    Like

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