Sunday, September 7, 2008

Single Song Sunday: Wayfaring Stranger
(On White Spirituals and The Religious Origins of Folk)



It is absolutely trivial to note that certain songs crop up over and over again in the folk collector's travels; after all, as our blog subtitle reminds us, when we talk about folk, we're talking about a form that by its very nature treats older songs and tunes as part of the communication which makes us community, available to all who lay claim to culture.

But just as true hitmaking is hardly formulaic, it's not often obvious what keeps a song in the stream. Our Single Song Sunday series explores the various facets of heavy coverage, as a lens into folk music as culture. Today, a short treatment of the oft-covered folk tune Wayfaring Stranger -- a song which the popular groupmind claims is "often classified as a "white spiritual" -- helps us examine the religious origins of folk.




Throughout 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.



Cover Lay Down will return Wednesday for a preview of this year's Irish Connections festival, featuring Alison Brown, Luka Bloom, Crooked Still, Solas, and more!

25 comments:

florian said...

great post! always loved that giant sand mashup. btw. have you heard the cavernous grime version by jamie woon/burial? it's surprisingly reverent...

boyhowdy said...

Glad you enjoyed it, florian. I did encounter the Jamie Woon version (and also a remix, I think) as I gathered versions for consideration here, and had to listen to it a few times to feel like I was "getting it". It's an interesting take -- not folk, for sure, but worth mention.

Joyful said...

You omitted the 16 Horsepower version off their album "Secret South" - probably one of the more notable versions of this song, given David Eugene Edwards's strong Christian tradition and his performance of this song in the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

What about the Johnny Cash version too?

Anonymous said...

Great selection as always, but I also love the 16 Horsepower version the most - possibly one of the most powerful covers of a spiritual I've ever heard (and I'm not Christian, just someone who is incredibly moved by 16 Horsepower's stuff). Could you post that, too?

boyhowdy said...

Thanks to Joyful and anonymous above for alerting me to the 16 Horsepower version of this song, which I have since tracked down -- it is indeed a gorgeous take, ragged and heart-full and ancient-sounding, and I'll keep it on tap for the next (Re)Covered post, where we look back at older posts to find what's cropped up since they were first shared.

As always, I am indebted to my readership for making this folkblog an ongoing conversation, a fundamentally folkier phenom than just one guy's soapbox thoughts.

As for the Cash -- surely you've all heard THAT one before, eh? If not, please say so, and I'll plan to bring the man around, too, when it comes time to do so.

pilk00 said...

Great post! One of those few songs that can be done so many different ways, and you just about never get tired of hearing it.

This may blow my credibility completely, but my personal favorite is by Porter Wagoner/Penny Dehaven from "22 Grand Old Gospel 2004".

Deiter said...

Sixteen Horsepower covered this to great effect. They have the authenticity to make it work. (If you haven't heard 'em, check 'em out. They're great. Especially the first four or so albums.)

Noel said...

Nice one... thanks for cluing me into Jack White being on that Cold Mountain soundtrack. I knew he was into roots music but I never knew he went quite that far as to record mountain fiddle tunes himself. Thanks so much, I'm going to get that album.

Liz said...

One of my favorite folk songs, I feel like I've hit a gold mine! Thank you.

Liz said...

Roscoe Holcomb does a great version of this song as well.

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