"The Wayfaring Stranger" (also known as "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" or "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger"), Roud 3339, is a well-known American folk and gospel song likely originating in the early 19th century about a plaintive soul on the journey through life. As with most folk songs, many variations of the lyrics exist.
It has been speculated that "Wayfaring Stranger" may have been derived from "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow," a folk song from the Scottish Borders. However, the fact that the two songs differ entirely in subject matter calls the theory into doubt.
According to the book, The Makers of the Sacred Harp, by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan, the lyrics were published in 1858 in Bever's Christian Songster. This may have been the first time the song appeared in print, in English. Steel and Hulan suggest the song was derived from an 1816 German-language hymn, "Ich bin ein Gast auf Erden" by Isaac Niswander.
During and for several years after the American Civil War, the lyrics were known as the Libby Prison Hymn. This was because the words had been inscribed by a dying Union soldier incarcerated in Libby Prison, a notorious Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. It had been believed that the dying soldier had authored the song to comfort a disabled soldier, but since it had been published several years before the Civil War had started (and before Libby Prison existed), this was not the case.
Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
It became one of Burl Ives' signature songs, included on his 1944 album The Wayfaring Stranger. Ives used it as the title of his early 1940s CBS radio show and his 1948 autobiography.
Emmylou Harris covered the song on her 1980 album Roses in the Snow. Harris' version peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. It reached number 1 on the RPM Country Tracks chart in Canada.
The song, here referred to as "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger", was featured in the 2019 World War I drama 1917. It was performed by actor and singer, Jos Slovick. In February 2020, a Change.org petition collected over 2,500 signatures to urge film producers, Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures, to release a full studio version of Slovik's performance.
Wayne Henderson and the Origins of
the Music Maker Sustenance Program
»Wayne Henderson is a famous luthier from Southwestern Virginia. I met him in 1981, I was 18 years old and had just moved South. Wayne worked for the US Post Service as a rural mail carrier. We became friends and he built me a guitar that I learned how to play on – I carried it to Kenya, toured the world with Guitar Gabriel with it. When Music Maker got started, and after I recorded a series of duets with Eric Clapton with the guitar, a generous donor bought it from me for $1,000 and donated $100,000 to Music Maker. I hated to part with that instrument. My father, who passed at 56 years old, had lent me the money to get it. I heard his voice say to me, “Tim, it is just some wood put together. You could help a lot of your folks with that money.” So that is what we did. Denise and I started the Sustenance Program at Music Maker with that donation. Since its inception, our Sustenance Program has provided over 12,000 grants to musicians in need.
Wayne had a book written about him called Clapton's Guitar, about building our friend Eric a guitar. Since then he has had a music school in Marion, VA named in his honor and done incredible charitable acts for his rural mountain community. I called him the other day and learned that his long-time partner had recently passed from a sudden heart attack and he himself is scheduled to have his prostate removed due to cancer. His regular flow of visitors to his shop has declined. 40 years later, Wayne remains a friend, one of the first Southern musicians, to lend me a hand. Years and years ago, I recorded an album of him and his brother Max playing instrumental duets, mandolin and guitar. It is one of the most beautiful records I have ever produced. For the last week their version of Wayfaring Stranger keeps going through my head. I have been poking around for this old CD but just don’t seem to need it as it keeps rolling through my brain every morning, as clear as the day I first heard them play it.
My thoughts are with Wayne and our partner artists right now as we journey into uncertain times. At this very moment, our Sustenance Program is providing critical support to musicians who are more in need than ever before. If you can, please donate today, to ensure that these important musicians remain safe. Keep The Roots Alive. Donate Today.« – Tim Duffy (Music Maker Relief Foundation)
Listen to Wayfaring Stranger from: Backporch String Band Bluegrass Alliance Eva Cassidy Connla Ray Cooper Cosán Jim Couza The Crooked Jades Simone Dinnerstein & Tift Merritt Janet Dowd Stewart Hardy & Stewart Hardy Burl Ives Niki Jacobs Old Salt Road Brothers Dao Strom Hans Theessink Norma Waterson Watch Wayfaring Stranger from: American Patchwork Quartet Suzy Bogguss City of Enoch Connla Ray Cooper The Franz Family Rhiannon Giddens Emmylou Harris Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra Nikitov Andrea Pancur Ed Sheeran Jos Slovick Hans Theessink Jack White Lyrics (© Mainly Norfolk): (Poor) Wayfaring Stranger
Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy recorded Poor Wayfaring Stranger on their 2010 album Gift. Eliza Carthy commented in the sleeve notes: »Poor Wayfaring Stranger comes from a number of places, mostly out of Mam's head and originally, of course, mostly from America. The great Almeda Riddle, who when Mam along with the other Watersons met her at the American Bi-Centennial celebrations in Washington in 1976 insisted everyone call her “granny”, was a great performer and they all got along like a house on fire. She made them a present of her album and her book, and sadly is no longer with us. Ask Mam how she would sing with her hands one day—it's lovely. Almeda did a version of it, as does Emmylou Harris and Jack White, but this one comes from Mam and Aidan sitting having a tune one night. Aidan led the arrangement, right down to trying to tell Danny Thompson what to play without being too scared.«
Ray Cooper recorded Wayfaring Stranger on his 2018 album Between the Golden Age & the Promised Land. He commented in the sleeve notes: »The migrants who seek the promised land have one thing in common; their families are split up. Many don't even know where their families are or if their fathers or sisters are still alive. They hope to one day be reunited. So it was for the immigrants to America in the 1800s, which is where this old hymn comes from.«
»Maybe you remember our album The Wind Rose by Arianna Savall, Petter Udland Johansen and the ensemble Hirundo Maris from 2014. At that time we also recorded a bonus track which has never been released: Wayfaring Stranger sung by Petter Udland Johansen. This song, whose origins date back to the 19th century, seemed to us right now in the current times which still unsettle many people, fitting and also healing, which is why we decided to finally present it to the public.«
You can download it here for free @ carpediem-records.de.
»NYC-based American Patchwork Quartet (APQ) is on a mission to reclaim the immigrant soul of American Roots Music. Grammy-nominated vocalist Falu Shah, Grammy-winning guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross, 3x Grammy-winning drummer Clarence Penn and highly acclaimed bassist Yasushi Nakamura showcase the dynamic diversity of contemporary culture by reimagining timeless songs from America's past. APQ draws on a repertoire of centuries-old American folk songs that highlight America’s immigrant roots. They showcase America’s dynamic present by combining the diverse talents of four U.S. citizens, each with a unique cultural background. In this quartet, old songs are made new through creative arrangements that highlight the exceptional and well-honed skills of each band member. APQ performances strive to counter pervasive prejudices around the issues of race and immigration. In order to help strengthen our country's social fabric, APQ desires that our audiences reflect on the notion that, as Americans, we must acknowledge our differences to discover our commonalities. We must recognize the realities of racism and prejudice in order to build authentic and lasting bonds across cultures and color lines. While we are not responsible for our country's past, we are accountable for its future. For the next four weeks, APQ will make their first four songs available for download via bandcamp.com and will donate 100% of the proceeds to Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA). Please join in the effort to share this music and its message of inclusivity, diversity, and equality.«
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: June 2020.
Photo Credits: (1),(3)-(4) '2017', (2) Jos Slovick, (5) 'I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger', (6) Norma & Eliza Carthy, (8) Niki Jacobs, (9) Petter Johansen (Hirundo Maris), (10) Falu Shah (American Patchwork Quartet) ; (7) Ray Cooper (by Walkin' Tom).