Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wayfaring Stranger: A Song That's Stood the Test of Time

The minor key gets me every time. The passion of the voice, the violin, strum of a guitar, the words. That song took root in my soul years ago, it's tattooed on my foot, I listen to it nearly every day. It reminds me of what’s to come, it reminds me to focus on the Lord, it grounds me and centers me. That song… My ancestors sang it, the pioneers in the mountains, the African slaves of the south sang it, and the characters in my books. It’s called Wayfaring Stranger.

The song has a long history, and it’s so shrouded in mystery. It's said to be an Appalachian folk song, others say it’s a slave spiritual. It could very well be both. It's been sung throughout America for two hundred years, and it's stood the test of time, as recording artists are still creating new versions every year. It was sung at revival meetings, and it could have been code for freedom among the slaves - "going over 'Jordan'" could have meant the Ohio River, bordering slave and free states. It just grabs at you with its heartfelt, haunting tune, its words about longing for heaven and to be done with the trials of this earth. It reminds me of the verse from Romans 8, that we long to be set free, that all creation groans for redemption, for the next life. I’ve been listening to this song nearly every day for seven years straight, and I never tire of it. It’s a part of me now.

A Treasury of American Song tells the song was first recorded as having been song as early as 1830, but was likely around for years or decades before then. One source claims it dates to 1784. Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America says the song is found in the first edition of Sacred Harp in 1844, and a note along with the song reads: “the compiler, John G. McCurry, Hartwell, Georgia, ‘when eight years old, learned the air of this tune from Mrs. Catherine Penn.’ That was therefore 1829.”

Today, the song lives on in homes and churches around the country, and artists from Johnny Cash, Andy Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris, Alex Boye, Jack White to Ed Sheeran have created their own versions. Log in to Youtube or Spotify and just scroll down the list. There are hundreds of versions of this song, and no two are alike. That’s the beautiful thing about old folk tunes such as this—you can take it and run with it and make it your own. Violin to acapella to guitar, you can do anything with this song. The words lend themselves to creativity, and yet I have not found a version that was not true to its original intent. Some versions I can listen to over and over again and am still moved by them every time. Find your favorite version and leave it in the comments. I’m always looking for more versions to add to my collection.
I am just goin' over Jordan
I am just goin' over home

What song means the most to you?

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