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Poor Wayfaring Stranger

March 2022

Poor Wayfaring Stranger A Religious Ballad, sung by one person "The Wayfaring Stranger" (also known as "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" or "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”), Roud 3339, is an American folk song that likely was composed in the early 19th century, but is not necessarily of American origin. This song tells the tale of a plaintive soul on his journey through life, a road that searches for those the peaceful waters of the Promised Land. As is the case with any folk song, there exist many variations of the lyrics. Myriad versions of the composition have been published. According to the book, The Makers of the Sacred Harp, written by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan, the lyrics appeared in 1858 in a publication of popular hymns and spiritual songs called Christian Songster by Joseph Bever. It is not known if this instance was the first time that “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” was printed in English in this collection of period musical works. The songwriter is unknown.

Countless folk songs and spirituals in the Appalachians Mountains of America evolved from medieval English and Scots melodies and tunes. The practice, a custom really, of singing religious lyrics to secular tunes began during the Norman Conquest, if not earlier. The earliest colonists in the United States brought from the United Kingdom melodies that had emanated from Methodist and Presbyterian minstrels in that Old World. The lilting melodies, simple but unforgettable cadences, driving rhythms, and elegiac chord progressions of the Scots and, to a greater extent, the Scots-Irish would profoundly mark and influence folk music in young 19th century America. A century later, those tonal patterns, celestial harmonies, and catchy choruses and refrains found their way into a very American form of harmonic art: bluegrass (as in Kentucky). Bluegrass was a fusion of those Old World ballads and tunes from all over Great Britain with Negro slave spirituals and with that uniquely special quality called “American”. From that creative cauldron came country music, an extremely American brand of musical art. During the 20th century, that genre called country incorporated melodies, cadences, rhythms, and chord progressions that were very similar to those Appalachian ballad-forebears who had been composers without knowing it.

Their expressions from the heart had flowed quite naturally and abundantly into a very American brand of musical art, way back when recording artists were artists and when country was country and when music was music: pre-1990. During the epochs of early and Civil War America, those melodic lines from the Old Country merged with folk tunes and ballads. The results were songs that were sung in church, but they bore a rather strange resemblance to ditties that were crooned (sometimes the previous night) in the tavern. Those canticles equally mimicked the folk tunes and mountain songs commonly and pleasurably warbled at quilting bees, dinners held outdoors, weddings, funerals, and other hillbilly social events.

It is possible that “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” emerged from the Appalachian region as a spiritual that had originated in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. This version that I sing is a “smoothing out” of an 1830s religious folk tune, or gospel hymn. The straight-forward lyrics possess a beauty of simple, unaffected directness that frees the soul to hear itself. One historic tale maintains that during the War Between The States, or the U.S. Civil War; and during several years after the end of this war, these lyrics were known in the South and the Northeast as the Libby Prison Hymn. They’d been inscribed somewhere in Libby Prison by a Union soldier, incarcerated there, as he laid in his bunk, dying. This building had been a warehouse, make-shifted during the war into a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. The death rate there was appallingly high; and it would be poetic, if not poetically just, if this provenance of the song were true.

This dying soldier was said to have written this song to comfort a wounded soldier, but research indicates that this merciful event could never have happened. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” was published in 1858, three years before the commencement of the Civil War. The warehouse was, furthermore, converted into Libby Prison in 1862. The reference to the River Jordan implies “crossing over in death.” The journey is undertaken by the wayfaring stranger to see his Heavenly Father, and those who have crossed over before him. Such an allusion, however, can be voiced by anyone who is journeying through life. That life may indeed be heavy-laden with sorrow and struggle, as the wandering stranger searches to find a land he can call home. New life is thus breathed into an old old traditional folk spiritual of all-time.

Poor Wayfaring Stranger I am a poor wayfaring stranger, Traveling through this wearisome land There is no sickness, no toil no danger In that fair land to which I go. I'm going there to see my Father, I'm going there no more to roam I'm a-going over Jordan I'm a-going over home. I'm going there to see my Savior Who shed his precious blood — for me I'm a-going over Jordan I'm a-going over home I'm just a-going over home.


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