The arranger of Wayfarin’ Stranger, Reginald Unterseher, has a recording of the song on his website. The recording was made by the Berkshire Maestros, which is part of a music education program for children and young people in England. This is a very nice recording, with good diction. Listen especially to the dynamics–they do a great job with those. The question is, can we do as well?
As to the song’s history, Wayfaring Stranger was born in the southern Appalachian Mountains about the time of the American Revolution, according to widely held beliefs about the origins of this popular, early American song. At that time, the immigrants of the region were mostly English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, but there was also a mysterious group known as Melungeons. Sometimes called the Black Dutch, the Melungeons are often said to be of Portuguese descent, though their precise lineage is still a mystery, but is thought to include Native American, African, and some Mediterranean backgrounds. In recent years much research has begun to yield more clues to the Melungeons’ origins and history. They appear to have been semi-nomadic, generally moving inward from the Atlantic coast in search of more favorable social conditions. Probably because of this, Wayfaring Stranger has become associated with Melungeon history.
Regardless of descent, in those days the people of the region lived lives of enormous hardships, struggling to survive in an environment of often-rugged wilderness terrain, few supplies, not always friendly Indians, and the frequent loneliness of isolation. Wayfaring Stranger is typical of many of the spiritual songs of the time, expressing the pain and hardship of daily life, while dreaming and hoping for a bright and beautiful life after death.
As many of these settlers moved westward in the expansion during the years following the American Revolution, Wayfaring Stranger, one of the favorite songs of the day, traveled with them, eventually becoming widely known all across North America. More recently, in the middle of the twentieth century, Wayfaring Stranger was revived by the American folk music movement and by musical researchers and performers such as Pete Seeger and Burl Ives. It was Burl Ives who popularized many early American songs, including Wayfaring Stranger. Known as Wayfaring Stranger, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, or I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger, the song is described variously as: spiritual, American spiritual, folk-spiritual, Negro spiritual, traditional Southern spiritual, Southern folk-hymn, spiritual folk-ballad, religious ballad, hymn, etc. There is some evidence that supports a black American spiritual source for Wayfaring Stranger, and surely the song’s history is not complete without the significant influences of the black spiritual tradition. Whatever their often hard to trace initial origins, spirituals were quickly adopted and adapted by the diverse people and traditions of America. And so it continues today.
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