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