When I sing songs like this, or ‘Idumea’, it is purely for the power and beauty of the tune, and the words as poetry; not because I have a belief in any kind of life hereafter. However, at the end of a week in which we buried my mother, this seems an appropriate song to post.
I first heard it sung by Cathy Lesurf, with the Oyster (Ceilidh) Band in the early 1980s. Subsequently I’ve heard powerful recordings by singers including Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Norma Waterson. But the version which really made me want to learn the song was the one which Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins recorded in October 1959 from the Arkansas singer Almeda Riddle. Their recording was included on the CD Southern Journey Volume 4: Brethren, We Meet Again – Southern White Spirituals. I then found the words and audio for a fuller four-verse version, recorded from Almeda a few months earlier in August in 1959 by John Quincy Wolf, Jr., on the website of the John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection.
All the versions I had heard previously were resolutely in the minor key. One thing I like about Granny Riddle’s version is that it is essentially in the major key, but with plenty of flattened and – better still – ambiguous notes. These tonal ambiguities are very much a part of the singer’s vocal style, and the power of the performance overall, but I have found it difficult to reproduce them without it sounding like I’m trying to do an impression of an Arkansas grandmother. So I’ve tried to sing the song in a way that captures the spirit of Almeda Riddle’s version, while staying true to the way I normally sing. Not sure how successful I’ve been in this, but it’s too good a song not to sing.
Incidentally, I recently stumbled across this fine solo performance of the song by Bill Monroe which, it strikes me, is in very much the same vein as Almeda Riddle’s.
And here’s one of several Sacred Harp performances you can find on the web.
The history of the song is covered on this Mudcat thread: http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=23495 . It seems that the words at least date back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Poor Wayfaring Stranger